Lifeline – Australia’s national 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention service – celebrates 60 years of saving lives on 16 March 2023.
Established by the late Rev Sir Alan Walker, the former Superintendent of Wesley Mission, Lifeline exists to ensure no one faces their darkest moments alone.
Wesley Mission CEO and Superintendent, Rev Stu Cameron, said Walker knew with compassion and connection there was hope.
“Rev Alan Walker realised the power of the telephone to connect people launching the world’s first telephone counselling service, Lifeline, in Sydney’s Darlinghurst on March 16, 1963,” Cameron said.
“Sixty years on, Lifeline has become an international movement that saves countless lives. Wesley Mission’s Lifeline Sydney and Sutherland volunteer crisis supporters are available 24 hours a day to listen, without judgement to any person in Australia who is feeling overwhelmed, experiencing crisis or longs to be heard.”
“Every life matters. Wesley Mission continues to help those at risk of suicide find the assistance they need through our suicide prevention programs,” says Cameron. “We have a long history in this field, having birthed the Lifeline movement 60 years ago and establishing Wesley LifeForce, a national suicide prevention program supporting community action groups and training in 1995.”
Wesley Mission will celebrate Rev Alan Walker’s remarkable legacy with a special service at Wesley Conference Centre, 220 Pitt Street, on Sunday, 26 March, at 4pm.
Sydney in the swinging 60s was – for some – a happening place to be.
Beatlemania swept the nation; man walked on the moon; the civil rights movement began; women enjoyed greater equality in the workplace and the beginnings of legal recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples commenced.
While the social revolution of the 60s brought greater individual freedom for Sydney-siders, the flip-side was what Rev Alan Walker coined ‘lonely Sydney’ noting as the city of Sydney grew, many languished on the sidelines of society.
“Today there is a larger need; moral, psychiatrical, personal, emotional. People and homes are breaking down constantly under the pressure of today’s life. Moral and spiritual poverty take their place beside physical poverty. To the Central Mission come an endless stream of people at the end of their tether,” Rev Alan Walker told Wesley Impact! magazine in 1961.
Tragically, it would be this helplessness felt by many and suicide that would establish Lifeline, the world’s first telephone counselling service, in March 1963.
One late Saturday night in 1961, Rev Alan Walker picked up the phone at his Roseville home.
On the line was a distressed Roy Brown. Speaking of terrible loneliness, crippling debt and his sense of failure, Roy told Walker he had written a letter, but by the time Walker would read it, Roy would be dead.
Roy said he was sorry to worry Walker, but there wasn’t anyone else who cared what happened to him. He just wanted to tell someone.
Walker pleaded with Roy for his address so he could go see him, but all Roy would agree to was to attend church to hear Walker speak. After hearing the sermon, Roy called again, and agreed to a meeting at Pitt St.
Police phoned Walker five minutes before the agreed meeting, to say they had found a man dead in his Kings Cross flat with a letter addressed to Walker.
Walker called thirty people to meet and pray.
At that meeting, the idea of a 24-hour counselling team was suggested, and the Lifeline movement began. Walker realised the power of the telephone to connect people.
“From a desperate call, the tragedy of suicide and a helplessness that was felt by many…the amazing work of Lifeline was born,” Walker told Wesley Impact! magazine in 1961.
- Lifeline was established by the former Superintendent of Wesley Mission (known then as the Central Methodist Mission), Rev Sir Alan Walker, in response to the number of crisis calls he was taking at his home.
- A refurbished Wesleyan property on Flinders Street, Darlinghurst was named the Lifeline Centre. More than 150 volunteers applied when Rev Walker put out the call for help.
- With the tagline ‘Help is as close as the telephone’ Lifeline’s Darlinghurst call centre was opened on 16 March 1963 by Sydney Lord Mayor H.F. Jensen, who spoke to the 2,500 strong crowd. The project was the culmination of years of planning and six months of training for 200 volunteer workers.
- The first night the Lifeline Centre’s phone number was announced (prematurely), 50 callers dialled through. 100 callers rang through on the first night. Within the first month, one thousand Sydneysiders had called. By the end of the Lifeline Centre’s first year, telephone crisis supporters had taken 11,664 calls, and the ‘Trouble Team’ cars had attended 100 homes across the city.
- Two-way radio would connect the Lifeline Centre to a team of cars – known as the Trouble Team – who would be despatched to homes across the city to offer support to people in crisis.
- Lifeline features in the January 1964 issue of Time magazine. With the headline Evangelism: Throwing Out the Life Line, the article helped Lifeline to launch similar services globally.
- By 1966, Rev Alan Walker formed Lifeline International, establishing 15 Lifeline Centres (modelled on the Sydney centre) in eight countries.
- Darlinghurst Lifeline Centre is extensively damaged by fire in 1967, but phones are only offline for 25 minutes, with calls diverted to the Wesley Centre in Sydney’s Pitt Street until they were restored the next morning. The damaged sections of the Centre were rebuilt and reopened in 1968.
- By 1973 Lifeline operates centres in almost every Australian capital city and globally, 100 cities operate telephone services affiliated with the organisation. The New York centre, in its first year alone, received 80,000 calls for help.
- Lifeline launches a drop-in service for unemployed people in 1975.
- Newsreader Roger Climpson hosted the first Lifeline Doorknock campaign in 1975, supported by 12,000 collectors.
- Rev Alan Walker’s son David Walker launches Youthline, a youth counselling service run by 18-25-year-olds in 1976.
- By 1979 the Lifeline Centre moved from Darlinghurst to the Wesley Centre in Pitt Street, Sydney, taking 60,000 calls a year.
- In 1994, Lifeline transitioned the 24-hour telephone crisis support line to the single national priority number used today – 13 11 14.
- Wesley Mission launches Wesley LifeForce – local networks across Australia working to prevent suicide – in 1995. Training to empower people to save lives and Aftercare services were added over time.
- Rev Sir Alan Walker dies on 29 January, 2003 aged 91. [4 June 1911 – 29 January 2003] Following his death, tributes flow from the then Premier The Hon. Bob Carr MP, then Prime Minister, The Hon. John Howard OM AC, Rev Dr Billy Graham and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
- Lifeline Sydney & Sutherland, which continues to be run by Wesley Mission, answered more than 50,000 calls in 2022.
- Lifeline introduces call flow to the 24-hour phone service in 2007, allowing calls to be answered by the next available operator in centres across Australia.
- Lifeline reaches a new audience with the introduction of SMS support service Lifeline Text in 2018. The text service is available 24/7 from February 2022.
- Natural disasters such as the Black Summer bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic in 2019-20 saw call volumes reach new heights due to extreme levels of community distress.
- The highest number of calls in Lifeline’s history was received on 19 August 2021 – 3,505 calls in a single day.
- In 2022 Lifeline Online Chat becomes a 24-hour chat service under the banner of Lifeline Digital.
Media Contacts – Wesley Mission
Media Contact – Lifeline Australia
About Wesley Mission
Wesley Mission helps more than 35,000 Australians each year who are in crisis and need immediate help. Some of their urgent needs include housing to address homelessness and emergency relief to pay for groceries and essential bills. Many are on very low incomes or are receiving income support payments.
Wesley Mission’s broad range of community services supported an additional 80,000 people in 2021 through early intervention and prevention programs to build community capacity. Wesley LifeForce supports more than 130 Suicide Prevention Networks in communities across Australia.