Enjoyably, Michelle Possingham borrows from famed author Lewis Carroll when describing herself, “I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” She then triggers more laughs by stating that if she were an animal, she thinks she’d be a Golden Retriever, as she’s, “friendly, excitable, loves the beach and I’m always thrilled to meet new people and new dogs. Unlike a Golden Retriever, I enjoy deep conversations, a good meme, and a proper belly laugh.”
Michelle also highlights that, “I feel like my identity is intrinsically linked to Lifeline Gippsland,” which is an excellent attribute when you’re the chief executive officer of Lifeline Gippsland and passionate about suicide prevention.
To steal from Lewis Carroll once more, you’ll soon see that Michelle fits another of his famous quotes, “One of the secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others.”
Michelle is a multi-generation Gippslandian, who after completing high school in Maffra headed to Melbourne to study.
“I wish I had a less cliched story about how it is I returned to Gippsland, but I came back for a boy. Seventeen years later, I’m deliriously happy that I did; I’m still madly in love with the boy (now a man) and with our community.”
From early in her career, Michelle says that she’s been “privileged to work with the most extraordinary people,” with one of her most formative roles being a program worker for a day facility for people experiencing mental ill-health.
“Together, we created art, baked, discussed books and television. Some of my greatest learning came through my time in the day program, as we walked side by side as a community.
“I recall bounding into the computer room on my first day and encountering one of the participants who was having a tough day. I asked him what we needed to do to fix it. He was kind as he explained that it wasn't something that could be 'fixed' and that it wasn't my job to do so. He needed me to sit by his side and listen to his story (and call him out for his really bad jokes). I learned more on my first day than I did while studying psychology.”
Michelle spent many years in carer support, mentioning, “One of the biggest challenges is that most people don't identify as ‘carers’; they are simply the partners, family members or friends of people living with mental ill-health.”
Through these roles, Michelle had the opportunity to facilitate retreats and meet some wonderful people. She shares that on one trip high up in the Grampians, she was hiking with a man who hadn’t enjoyed the same privileges in life as she had – he had not even hiked before.
“I’ll never forget the pride in his voice when he called his mother to tell her that we had reached the summit. As I recall this, I can feel the goosebumps rise on my arms as I reflect on what that moment meant to him. His sense of achievement. Of feeling worthy of praise. Of being more than his diagnosis, as all people who experience mental ill-health are.”
Over the years, Michelle transitioned into more administrative roles, managing programs and leading teams of people passionate about positively impacting the world. And then, about eight years ago, she saw a documentary about a number of youth suicides in a region close to ours.
“I remember having a visceral reaction as I felt a palpable sense of tension building inside me. I couldn't understand why I was sitting by as we were losing lives – young lives – needlessly to suicide. I resolved there and then that I would do something.”
Life, as it so often does, intervened.
About four years later, a friend mentioned Lifeline Gippsland in passing.
“I told her that the role of CEO of Lifeline Gippsland was my dream job. Her response? Why haven't you
applied for it then?”
The position had been advertised and was closing that very day. Michelle quickly pulled together an application, and a few weeks later she accepted the position.
“Was it meant to be? I like to think so. I certainly feel like I’m where I’m meant to be.”
On her first day with Lifeline Gippsland, Michelle recalls meeting people who have given an incredible amount of their lives to the organisation: volunteers in the Lifeline retail stores who had been there over 30 years, and people volunteering in the warehouse for over 20 years. Amazing.
The vision of Lifeline is powerful in its succinctness, ‘An Australia free of suicide’. The organisation's key means of achieving this is simple: they’re on the other end of the telephone whenever someone may need them.
“It sounds trite, but it’s true – listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give another person.
“We all want to feel heard and to connect with someone. When someone is having thoughts of suicide, our crisis supporters hold space for them. Holding space is a willingness and ability to be alongside someone in their experience of pain…without trying to ‘fix’ them. It takes courage for someone to pick up the phone and reach out for help.”
To further grasp the importance of listening, Lifeline Gippsland Crisis and Community Services Manager Alicia Tripodi shared that, “Being heard, authentically and without judgement, is crucial to our work on the phones. It is a rare gift to be genuinely listened to… We know that the help seeker is the expert in their story, and our role is to listen and support. The right to be believed and have feelings validated is a good starting point to support and healing”.
Michelle explained that suicide is incredibly complex and very rarely is it the result of a single factor. While the reasons are multifaceted, research tells us that it may be more likely to occur during periods of socioeconomic, family and individual crisis situations, such as the death of a loved one or family breakdown.
“We receive an increase in calls to the 13 11 14 crisis line during natural disasters, both local, national and international. The people of Gippsland care beyond our region; they care about what's happening to people in the world around us.”
During the pandemic, Lifeline has seen a 40 per cent increase in calls, as one of the most substantial impacts has been social isolation. Michelle says, “Loneliness has massive implications for maintaining good mental and physical health.
"Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give another person.”
One of the biggest challenges in keeping Lifeline Gippsland operational is a lack of funds. Michelle explains that most of the funds that help Lifeline Gippsland operate the 13 11 14 crisis line are generated from within the organisation, with Lifeline Gippsland running six op shops located across Gippsland that help to create income. Of course, like everyone in retail, their stores have been significantly impacted by the pandemic.
Yet, Michelle says she’s been “humbled time and time again by the generosity of local businesses and individuals… Every time I hear the words ‘we've decided to support Lifeline Gippsland’, I become emotional. It's been a hard slog. The volunteers and staff are dedicated, committed, but stretched.”
“We want the community to understand that we are here to support anyone in emotional distress.
“A farmer friend of mine coined the phrase, ‘we want people to reach out to them on their bad days, not on their worst day’. I have to pay him ten dollars every time I quote him, but I think it's money well spent. We don't want people to wait until they've reached a crisis point to contact us.
“If speaking isn't your thing, we now have a text line available 24/7 – 0477 13 11 14. We've seen a massive uptake of this service from young people, which is really encouraging.”
“As a community, we need to commit to listening for the signs that someone around us may be struggling. Knowing how to identify and respond to early warning signs that may be present long before a suicidal crisis is equally as important as knowing how to respond when a crisis hits.
“Most of us feel uncomfortable talking about suicide. For a long time, there was a misconception that talking about suicide might encourage someone to act on suicidal thoughts. Research tells us that this is not true. We know that skirting the issue adds to the fear someone might feel about telling us that they are thinking about suicide. Asking the question directly often removes that fear and creates a safe place for people to open up.”
Education is a key step in empowering our communities with practical tools to respond to these challenging situations. Michelle recommends undertaking training like Mental Health First Aid.
“Many people don't ask because they don't know what to do if the answer is ‘no’. Let's continue to come together as a community, have what may be initially uncomfortable conversations… Let’s keep checking in on each other. Together, we can save lives.”
After gaining such a comprehensive and accessible understanding of Lifeline Gippsland and the invaluable service they provide, we needed to know how Michelle guides the organisation.
“I hope my team sees me as a leader, not a manager. I model my style of leadership on the Ted Lasso approach. If you haven't watched Ted Lasso, it’s a comedy with heart. Like Ted, I strive to support and empower my team to be the best versions of themselves. I make sure my team, made up of paid staff and volunteers, know how much they are appreciated and that we couldn't function without them.
“Ted Lasso encourages his team to be curious, not judgemental (a quote commonly attributed to Walt Whitman). Curiosity is essential. It leads to both a greater understanding of one another and helps us to identify better ways of doing things…we are all driven by our shared vision.”
For the final word, we asked for Alice’s perspective on Michelle (nothing like us hurling an employee under the bus, right?!), given their close working relationship:
“What makes Michelle incredibly effective is her ability to lead through the highs and lows that Gippsland has experienced. We have seen her tin shake on the highway to fundraise, empty donation trucks when we’ve been short of volunteers, go above and beyond to support a volunteer experiencing domestic family violence… I could go on!
“In a world where people are increasingly busier and time-poor, Michelle ensures that everyone is supported and heard.”
…all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others…
Lifeline Gippsland’s crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day at 13 11 14.
To support Lifeline Gippsland visit llg.org.au/donate or make a purchase in their op shops.