Girl reading Jacks FUNtastic Day Book
Stride Services Manager Sarah Holmes and peer worker Emma.

 ​From the outside, Safe Haven Wollongong looks like many of the other neat and homely Federation dwellings in its street. Within, however, it provides a remarkable service for community members who are in emotional distress and experiencing suicidal thoughts.


The lounge room features an Indigenous artwork created by a Coomaditchie United Aboriginal Corporation artists, lending both colour and meaning. Other walls have been left bare, and guests of the Safe Haven are encouraged to add their individual artworks or poems. One guest created cartoon drawings to communicate to peer workers how he was feeling.
The Safe Haven opened in May 2021 to serve the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District (LHD) as part of the state-wide Towards Zero Suicides initiative. Run by mental health charity Stride, it’s one of two Community Management Organisation (CMO) Safe Havens in NSW.

The model complements the non-clinical ethos of Safe Havens and fosters grassroots connectivity with the local community, while also being closely integrated with the LHD network.

The Illawarra Shoalhaven LHD have worked closely with Stride to ensure the Safe Haven in Wollongong is an authentic alternative to the emergency department for guests attending. “We are delighted to be given the opportunity to open Safe Haven in Wollongong and feel supported by the LHD to engage with community members,” says Sarah Holmes, Stride Service Manager.

“We’re also lucky because we have the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative, who do amazing work in the region. The Collaborative members were very involved within the co-design of the Safe Haven, and the local community really advocated for such a space to exist.

“The dream for Safe Haven Wollongong is that it’s a safe space for the community as a whole for individuals experiencing suicidality. And with that comes continued input and involvement from the community so we can adapt and change as needed.”

There is no age restrictions for the guests, although those under 16 must attend their first visit with a carer, guardian or a parent. Guests don’t need a Medicare card nor an appointment.

“When you set foot in the door, it’s warm, it’s welcoming, and it really does feel safe,” Sarah adds. “It almost feels like you’re getting a hug as you walk in. That sounds funny, but a lot of time has been spent thinking about what a Safe Haven should look like. Stride really wanted to be authentic to the co-design.”

Each room is set up slightly differently to accommodate guest needs, whether that’s the lounge room or a quieter sensory room with softer lighting, or a kitchen table to have a cuppa and a chat.

Some guests arrive at 2pm, when the service opens, and stay until closing time at 10pm. Other guests average two to three hours and return whenever they feel the need, or to discuss a safety plan.

Demand has increased over the last few months, having seen earlier months impacted by COVID-19 periods. Staff also noted an increase during the recent holiday period.

“The festive season isn’t always a happy time for many people in the community,” Sarah noted. “It was important guests could come through on a day that was quite traumatic for them.”

John Pullman, the Mental Health Service Development Manager for the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District, acknowledges the success, noting that the service is well patronised and receives highly positive feedback.

“As an LHD we’re delighted to have a safe, peer-led space like this that’s readily available,” he said, “We had nothing like this before and hopefully it’s part of a cultural shift in mental health services, moving into the future.

“Our decision to tender this out to Stride, who have a flexible and responsive culture, has been part of the success. They’ve brought a way of doing things that enhances the overall service we can provide.”

Safe Haven Wollongong is open Wednesdays to Saturdays, 2pm to 10pm, at 55 Urunga Parade, Wollongong.


A beige house with stairs leading to front door
The Safe Haven at Wollongong. Image: Kelly Fuller/ABC.

A peer worker’s perspective …

“When a guest arrives we allow them to navigate to where they’d like to sit and choose what they want to do,” says Safe Haven Wollongong peer worker, Emma. “Some like to have a cup of tea and talk about what has been going on for them. Others like to sit and just process their experiences and feelings.

“It’s about providing the space to allow someone to express their pain and talk with someone who can empathise with those feelings because of their own lived experience.”

The peer workers all undertake SafeSide training prior to taking on the role, helping to provide grounding techniques and to articulate their own experiences to help others.

“Our job is to listen,” Emma adds. “I’ve been touched by, moved by, the fact that you really only need to hold a space for someone where they can feel safe and comforted. It’s an amazing response and a huge achievement.

“The Safe Haven allows for a conversation between two people, which is sometimes the most powerful thing, and we feel such gratitude to work in a space like this. It’s not about clinical and non-clinical, it’s about presenting options and empowering people in a moment of vulnerability to choose what’s right for them.”

An ideal space in the heart of Western Sydney

Safe Haven Western Sydney is set to move into a fully renovated site this month after having an interim base on Westmead Hospital grounds. The new location is a brick-and-tile home within 10 minutes of Westmead Hospital.
Rowena Saheb, a Mental Health Project Officer with Western Sydney LHD, says the property looks purpose-built for the new role.

“The kitchen is in the centre, surrounded by open spaces, and we’ve turned the three former bedrooms into intervention spaces – one is for young people, one is for adults, the other is for older people, which is reflected by the furnishings.”
Rowena is excited about the chance to provide additional care for those in crisis.

“I have my own lived experience of suicide so I will always wave the peer-worker flag, but we see this Safe Haven as a value-add to a person’s existing clinical care and support networks.”

Safe Haven is a NSW Heath Towards Zero Suicides initiative.

Current as at: Tuesday 8 March 2022
Contact page owner: Mental Health