A Safe Haven has been set up in Wollongong to give those experiencing suicidal distress a place to seek refuge and support.
The drop-in centre, at 55 Urunga Parade, opens on May 26 and will be staffed by trained peer workers who have their own lived experience of suicidality.
It comes after a rise in suicide deaths across the Illawarra in the past year, with the tight-knit towns of Kiama, Gerringong and Jamberoo particularly hard hit.
The region's mental health director Julie Carter said the Safe Haven offered a calm, culturally-sensitive and non-clinical space which offered an alternative to hospital emergency departments.
"It's about providing a space for people experiencing suicidal crisis," she said.
"We recognise the emergency department is not always the best place for people when they're feeling suicidal or highly distressed.
"Instead this is a calm environment where they can talk to staff who are non-judgmental as they have lived experience of suicidality and understand what people are going through.
"People can talk through what's happening to them, and these peer workers can work out what can be done to best support them without it becoming a medical issue."
Ms Carter said the initiative was part of NSW Health's Towards Zero Suicides - which aims to reduce the rate of suicide deaths in the state by 20 per cent by 2023.
"It comes after a rise in suicide across the Illawarra, and the state, in the past year," she said. "People have faced a lot of adversity in the last 12 months - from bushfires and floods to the COVID pandemic and economic distress."
The Safe Haven - open from 2pm to 10pm from Wednesday to Saturday - is being run by the IIlawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District in partnership with mental health charity Stride.
Staff receive training and support too, and can call upon the district's mental health team if people need additional care.
Stride spokeswoman Lydia O'Connor said the charity focused on early intervention services to improve the mental health of children, young people and adults.
"This is our first Safe Haven, although we have similar services in other areas that have proven to be successful," she said.
"The aim is to support people in a distressed state and provide a safe space for them to move through that distress.
"That might be through talking to a peer worker, or it might be through sensory modulation - through enabling them to ground themselves by lying under a weighted blanket, rocking in a rocking chair, doing some mindful colouring.
"There's various spaces in the haven - they may want to be on their own in one of the rooms, or in a communal or outside area. There's a kitchen and dining area so they can have a cuppa and just spend as much time as they need there."
ISLHD chief executive Margot Mains welcomed the initiative.
"It's a fantastic place for people to come when they need to talk to someone, when they need some space or support," she said.
Help is always available: call Lifeline on 13 11 14; Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
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