The establishment of the Men’s Help Line, as a men’s telephone contact and referral service, was a critical step in the unfolding journey of what later became known as Mens Wellbeing Inc.
At the May 1994 Sunshine Coast Men’s Festival, at Ewen Maddock Dam, Dan Walker and Kerry Cronan offered a workshop aimed at establishing a Men’s Centre at Dan’s property in Woolloongabba. Only a couple of other men attended so a meeting was convened in Paddington a few days later with Tony Groom and Trevor Ozanne joining the discussion.
They considered the growing awareness that men, while experiencing many problems such as relationship difficulties, domestic violence, personal anger, frustration, stress and depression, had few services that they could readily access. Many agencies offering help in these and other areas of their lives only operated during normal working hours. Thus, it was difficult for “hurting and confused men” to get appointments.
At the same time the Queensland Government conducted a 9am to 5pm weekday telephone service called Women’s Infolink while there was no equivalent service for men.
Out of that meeting the four men hit upon the idea of creating a telephone service for men. Driven by the impending cut-off date for new listings in the White Pages Telephone Directory each man put in $200 to get the ball rolling. The name Men’s Help Line was registered, and a phone number allocated. When the Telephone Directory was issued a few months later, in September, Men’s Help Line appeared on the Community Services page, immediately under Lifeline, resulting in some overflow to the Men’s Help Line (MHL).
With Kerry as the prime mover, some 20 or so men and women met again with the outcome to put into effect what Tony Verner subsequently described as a non-woolly, practical, men helping other men, 24-hour telephone referral service. Thus, the Men’s Help Line came into being with a vision to have a group of men … who could undergo training in basic listening and counselling skills … to be trained and endorsed to offer a 24-hour answering service in order to respond to these men and their pressing needs.
In the meantime, men from local men’s groups and counsellors were canvassed for their interest. A dozen or so volunteered for a 9-week training course conducted by Kerry Cronan in order to prepare them to man the service. The training, held on weeknights and weekends, incorporated listening skills, addressing personal issues and access to referral services.
Dan Walker was diligent in compiling the resource list – he incorporated the Lifeline Directory as a source of referral for men’s issues as well as approaching local counsellors to establish the beginnings of the MHL Directory of Services – based largely on availability in Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast.
While Tom Laffan called Trevor the beater of the drum there was a host of other men who pulsed to this new rhythm of excitement.
An unofficial launch of MHL took place under unusual circumstances when, on June 1, American author Warren Farrell, (in Brisbane for a launch of his book, The Myth of Male Power), made mention of the newly created service during an ABC Brisbane radio program. One of the listeners phoned the radio station and that day became MHL’s first-ever caller.
The official launch occurred about 3 months later in September at Dan’s premises in Woolloongabba.
In the period between the unofficial and official launches any calls from people who had heard of the service were fielded by Dan and Trevor who functioned on a 24-hour rotating roster linked to a paging service.
Ultimately a roster of men was put into place to take calls 24 hours a day. Being in the days prior to mobile phones, the service operated through a beeper which recorded a call and the phone number of the caller. The volunteer later accessed a phone to make contact with the caller.
As the formal trainer, Kerry felt it important to provide regular review and debrief sessions for the volunteers. These were known as Care and Support meetings and were held fortnightly. Often guests were invited to these meetings to provide additional information regarding various issues that were being presented by callers to the service. Many men reported the benefits that they gained from attending those meetings. One such guest was Dr Wendell Rosevear who spoke at the July 1995 meeting about his work with gay and lesbian patients at the Gladstone Road Medical Centre as well as his prison support work.
When, later in 1995, Kerry moved on to be involved with the Gold Coast Men’s Help Line, a posse of men, headed by Tom Laffan, visited Dean Olafsen in Ipswich and twisted his arm to take on the training role. This ensured the excellent high quality of training, with Dean’s nuances, was continued.
MHL was the first 24-hour service of its kind in Australia, a totally volunteer body run by ordinary men for ordinary men, and offered enormous potential in an area where there was little recognition of the needs of men. It was politically non-aligned and dependant on self- funding by way of memberships, individual and corporate donations and the sponsoring of special events such as Men’s Festivals.
The commitment and involvement of volunteers was indicated through providing their own pager equipment and paying for their own phone calls. In its full 6 years of operation the 24/7 service never failed to respond to a call made to the line – including calls coming from far and wide throughout Queensland and beyond.
The Mission Statement for MHL was expressed as:
The Men’s Help Line seeks to make men aware that it is possible to enhance the quality of their lives and the lives of people around them for the benefit of the whole community.
We aim to support and encourage men at different times in their lives to select appropriate options for meeting the challenges they may face in today’s society
Tom Laffan recalls using newspaper articles and a presence at the Body Health and Harmony Festival to raise public awareness and recruit prospective volunteers.
In those early days Tom also recalls fielding a number of calls from female Social Work students questioning the operation of a telephone service for men.
With incorporation of the Men’s Help Line in May 1995, a formal committee was elected with Kerry Cronan, according to some recollections, the first President. When he moved on in August to focus on the Gold Coast branch Tom Laffan next took on the role and he was followed by Peter Rohan in 1996 who held the position through the amalgamation with Men’s Health and Wellbeing Association (Queensland) until 1999.
It is worthy of note that callers were often amazed that they were being listened to – it was often said “I’ve never said that to anyone before”. Many aggressive callers mellowed as they found that they were listened to.
Over time, some 25% of the users were female, calling on behalf of a man in their life: partner, brother, father, son, friend, etc. MHL policy with female callers was to encourage the man to phone on his own behalf.
Amongst the many diligent members of the team that kept the service functioning were William McGurk as Brisbane Coordinator and Arthur Bricknell as the roster organiser. In its 6 years duration the volunteers fielded more than 18000 calls and an impressive database of men’s needs and issues was built. Ronno Heard’s position as a QUT Planning Officer well equipped him to take on a back-room statistician role for MHL. He meticulously collated details of calls and compiled comprehensive graphical reports.
From the beginning, an analysis of calls was carried out four times a year looking at about 200 calls a quarter. Thus MHL built up quite a picture of the needs of men in the community.
After 2 years of operation, Trevor wrote about the breakdown of calls in the Certified Male magazine of Winter 1996. A few of the more critical calls were:
- A doctor rang seeking help for a man who had been raped and was turned away from a rape crisis centre – as they don’t deal with men;
- Some men needed money and were referred to appropriate agencies;
- Men seeking crisis accommodation – one such call was from a man whose wife threatened him with a knife resulting in his leaving the house with his child and seeking a place to stay.
Such lack of support and provision for men in need further intensified Trevor’s resolve to seek appropriate resources for men.
At the AGM on July 17, 1997 members voted unanimously for the Gold Coast Branch to stretch its wings and fly. Being seen as a blue print for any other branches that may set up in provincial cities a separate incorporated body, Men’s Help Line Association Gold Coast Branch Inc, was formed. It would have its own committee, raise and spend its own funds while continuing to follw the aims and objects of “head office”.
A publication called He-mail with Tony Groom as editor, became the newsletter for the Men’s Help Line. Distributed by post, it served as the communication tool for the MHL community. From August 1995 to May 1998 its 10 editions (plus a special fund-raising edition in March 1996) various issues and interests of men were explored and transmitted to the interested parties. It likely was the forerunner to the Mentor magazine.
Being a purely voluntary organisation, funding was a worry from the beginning and continued to be so throughout the life of the Men’s Help Line.
In the early days the $300-$500 quarterly Telstra phone bill was a regular expense in addition to promotional and operational costs.
Initially, volunteers used a paging system and returned the incoming calls at their own expense. With some callers being from far afield places such as Cairns, Mackay and Mt Isa the cost of the return calls became an onerous expense for some volunteers. At one point the statistics showed that 26% of calls were STD (extra charge) and 21% were from regional areas.
It was subsequently decided that as Help Line members were running the annual Queensland Men’s Festival (later Manhood) at Springbrook then its profits could go towards paying the expenses of the Help Line. A profit of $3000 was targeted. The volunteer training programs also brought in some positive cash flow.
In March 1996 MHL issued a special edition of He-mail seeking ONE HUNDRED GOOD MEN in a desperate appeal for funds. After investing $200 in stamps (snail mail days) an amount of $1500 was raised from 30 or so new contributors. The Management Committee was most appreciative of the support while continuing to feel the pressure of meeting the costs of maintaining and prospectively expanding the service.
Peter Whitcombe, who had been recruited by Tony Groom for the Brisbane branch of MHL before later focussing on the Gold Coast branch, became an untiring fundraiser including organising a number of public talks by Steve Biddulph (author of Manhood & Raising Boys amongst other books and Patron of MHL). Peter recalls one occasion introducing him to an audience of more than 1500 at Queensland University. Peter Rohan (President) and Trevor Ozanne (Secretary) were assiduous in their efforts to seek support from various areas of both State and Commonwealth Governments. As Peter reported in He-mail July 1996:
We have had meetings with senior officers of the Dept of Families, Youth and Community Services and the Leader of the Opposition (then Peter Beattie) with the objectives:
• To reassure them that we are reasonable men and that we are really passionate in our efforts to offer a service to men in need.
• To seek their support in establishing full-time paid positions to overcome our continuing problem with more calls during business hours
Without exception, these officials seemed quite “bowled over” by what we have achieved in just 2 years with our own resources.
The colour of any money was not to be seen.
In November 1996 Peter Rohan and Trevor Ozanne made a submission to a Commonwealth Government Standing Committee Inquiry into Aspects of Family Services chaired by Kevin Andrews, then a backbencher of the incumbent John Howard Coalition Government. Their comprehensive and detailed presentation sought to give voice to the cause of men in need, to proclaim the activity of Men’s Help Line (carried on largely on the smell of an oily rag) and to garner financial support for its ongoing work. The subsequent Committee Report was tabled in the House of Representatives on June 23 1998 with a Government Response, including recommendations, tabled on 23 June 1999 – 12 months later and nearly 3 years after the original submission. There was no beneficial outcome for MHL. Details of their efforts are recorded in the Commonwealth Government Hansard. r0881384.pdf (aph.gov.au) page 35/113
Not to be fazed, Peter and Trevor continued their efforts for funding support from State Government. In spite of maybes and feigned interest no funding was forthcoming and it became obvious that to fund men was politically unacceptable. A response from Premier Peter Beattie’s Department of Communities was : “men in need are less important than our least successful program”.
Following his return from an extended visit to his UK homeland Arthur Bricknell reconnected with Trevor and MHL in mid 1997. He was keen to raise funds for the Help line and organised two additional men’s gatherings called Brisbane Men’s Festival:
- Feb 26—Mar 1, 1998 at Camp Constable on Mt Glorious with the theme of Man Alive Gathering. About 60 – 80 men attended.
- Feb 11—14, 1999 at Kindlin Camping and training Centre (Girl Guides camp) at Redland Bay with a theme of Men Empowering Men. About 30 men attended.
The turnouts were smaller than expected and the proceeds minimal.
In January 1997 He-mail reported that a $10000 grant had been received from a submission to the Gaming Machines Community Benefit Fund. The funds were spent on computers, software, photocopier, fax machine and furniture. Of course a home was needed for these goodies. A call was put out in He-mail in January 1997 for suitable premises. Warwick (Wiz) Simmons (an active MHL member) spoke with Peter Howie at the Sunshine Coast Men’s Festival at Yandina in May resulting in Peter offering his space at Macquarie House in Coorparoo because MHL activities complement what he is doing. Thus, in June 1997 MHL had a physical home for a peppercorn rent providing space for committee meetings and workshops as well as a sense of place. It was a compatible home with lots of good energy.
The first edition of Mentor, November 1998, reported:
Tragically, the takings from the 1998 Springbrook Men’s Festival, $4200, were stolen. This puts into serious jeopardy the future of the Men’s Help Line which traditionally has relied on profits from that Festival. The Help Line has never received any government funding, so we are launching an urgent appeal for donations to keep this vital service going.
This tragedy later became a factor in the subsequent folding of the organisation.
Men’s Health and Wellbeing Association
The year 1998 saw a big move for Men’s Help Line. In March a lively and productive “think tank” was held at Macquarie House where the future of MHL for the next 5 years was considered.
After much discussion, the unanimous conclusion was that it would be good sense for MHL to come under the general banner of Men’s Health and Wellbeing Association (MHWA), an intended national body with offices in every state with a national voice and a national fund-raising lobby. MHL would continue to function as a cell unit of the Queensland branch with similar management, whilst new and increased membership would be drawn to the activities of MHWA. This organisation would be more inclusive and offer many more options in which new members could participate.
The amalgamation was formalised with a majority vote at a Special General Meeting held on April 2. The Gold Coast Branch reserved judgement on this decision and were invited to join the new format at a future date. The new body would be known as Men’s Health and Wellbeing Association (Qld) Inc – MHWA(Q).
After amalgamation there was some differing world views on the activity of the new organisation. For some, the Help Line continued to be the priority while for others there was an emphasis on men’s groups and festivals. This led to clashes within the group.
It seemed the writing was on the wall and, with the catastrophe of the theft of Festival takings, there was a burnout and toll on the volunteers. The constant pressure to replenish manpower and the kitty overcame even the stoutest of members. Peter Rohan resigned as President in September 1999 due to family and business interests. A new committee was formed with Ross Thompson as President. During 2000 the MHWA(Q) committee decided MHL was too expensive to run and it was closed on 30 June 2000. It is worthy to note that Trevor Ozanne was a tireless worker for MHL putting in many hours as its hard-working secretary.
Peter Rohan has noted:
What MHL and its members achieved was ground breaking at the time. MHL was the only 24/7 help line for men, run by men, in Australia. Through the trainings and experience on the phone lines, often in the middle of the night, men supported men in need when there was nowhere else to go.
It may be that the fire to support fellow men in need, whether straight or gay, was ignited with the inception of MHL by the men at the time, helped on by ground-breaking books like Manhood by Steve Biddulph, and others by John Bradshaw and Robert Bly, all helped us to serve the greater good
The demise of the Men’s Help Line saw subsequent developments from Government areas:
- In 2001 MensLine Australia was established providing a 24-hour telephone and on-line nationwide counselling service for men with emotional health and relationship concerns. This was funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services.
- In 2002 DVConnect Mensline was established in Queensland to provide a free telephone crisis counselling referral information and support line for any male Queenslander. The focus was to be on men who were experiencing violence, as well as men who are using violence, to help them amend their behaviours. It was funded under the Queensland Government Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women.
Dean Olafsen has commented:
MHL proved to be quite an effective grassroots response to men by men. The establishment of the State Government focussed DVConnect service was most inappropriate because domestic violence was only a small percentage of the calls received which meant that men with a broader range of very real and troubling issues lost a vital link to men who had spent hours both equipping themselves to support men all over Queensland and actually responded from their heart to their brothers in need.
Regardless of their flavours, the inception of the State and Commonwealth Government men’s telephone services is a testament to the groundwork done by the various grassroots phone services over the preceding years.