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We Asked a Nightline Volunteer About the Importance of Discussing Mental Health

Monday 10th October is World Mental Health Day and this year’s theme focuses on looking at the psychological first aid and support people can provide to those in distress.

The mental health crisis on university campuses has been widely talked about in recent years, with the NUS vowing to do more to tackle it and recent reports that one in four university students suffer from mental health problems.

One of the ways in which students are offered support is via volunteer-led Nightline services across the country. Nightline seeks to ensure every student is able to talk about their feelings in a safe, non-judgemental environment – their ultimate goals being that fewer students’ educations are affected by emotional difficulties and fewer students die by suicide. Currently, there are 36 Nightlines run by student volunteers – covering over 90 universities across the UK; they receive over 18,000 contacts a year.

I spoke to Dom Smithies about his experience working for Nightline. Dom has just been elected as Community and Well-being Officer at the University of York’s Students’ Union; prior to his election he spent a year working for the charity in York.

Dom has also held positions as Vice-Chair for Welfare and President of Alcuin College at the University.

photo provided

Dom tells me, “I think it’s hugely important that everyone always has someone to talk to, someone that will listen to them.” He shares a quote that he heard from someone he volunteered with at the service: “Every single person has at least one story that would break your heart”.

“I cannot attest enough to how true that quote is and how much better everything would be if everyone was always conscious of that. Nightline is for everyone… there is no problem that is too big or too small to qualify a call.”

One of the main things that sets Nightline apart from other support services available to students is that it is open all night. York’s Nightline is open from 8pm-8am every night during term time. Dom tells me he feels this is particularly beneficial when students might not have anywhere else to turn, “if you want someone to listen while you talk through a problem, want a break from your late night session in the library… or just want to have a natter to someone if you’re walking home, Nightline is there for you when support networks or services aren’t often available to people.”

Students considering using Nightline have a range of options when accessing the service.

If you aren’t comfortable talking to someone on the phone you can email, instant message or drop in for tea and biscuits. The service is confidential, anonymous, non-judgemental, non-directional (meaning callers decide what they want to talk about) and non-advisory (volunteers offer support, they don’t lecture). I ask Dom about the anonymity aspect of the role. “It is a rule that you’re anonymous while a listener,” he says, “but there are many who go on to become ‘Public Faces’ – people who give up listening and their anonymity in order to help promote the service and what it offers and does. I was anonymous for the year I was listening but went public before starting at [the SU]”.

Why is anonymity of volunteers so important, and was it difficult to maintain? Didn’t his housemates wonder where he went all night?

“The service is there for anyone and everyone and if there’s someone working there who you know you might be hesitant to use the service because you wouldn’t want them knowing – that’s exactly what anonymity helps to mitigate.” Dom continues, “I didn’t find it too hard having to hide – I actually enjoyed the challenge of having to get creative with my excuses.”

I ask why he believes students turn to services like Nightline as opposed to talking to people that they know. He suggests there are many reasons, “[their friends] might just be asleep and they might not want to disturb them, they might not want to worry them. The people they know might be part of or involved in the problem they’re facing or they might be slightly isolated.”

“There is always someone, somewhere who cares about you and will listen.”

He adds that a conversation with a Nightline volunteer is quite different to talking to a friend or relative, “with people you know its likely to be more of an exchange – ‘oh, a similar thing happened to me, this is how I dealt with it’ – and you’re likely there to seek advice, guidance and reassurance from them. With Nightline, you get a neutral space to take the conversation where you want it to go – volunteers aren’t going to give their opinion or advice, tell you what they think is right and wrong or talk to anyone else about it.”

Dom tells me he has “gained so, so much value from being on both sides [of the phone],” and shares his own experience of calling Nightline. “I personally felt enormously better and relieved after talking to them and getting things off of my chest… there is always someone, somewhere that cares about you and will listen.”

He goes on to say he would wholeheartedly recommend other students get involved and volunteer. “I only had the privilege of listening for a year and, amidst all of the things I got involved in and positions I held, Nightline, undoubtedly, was one of the most rewarding. It’s taught me so much that I’ve carried with me since I started and it was a huge joy to be a part of.”

For Dom, World Mental Health Day is about encouraging people to honestly discuss their struggles. He tells me, “there is no greater strength or bravery, in my personal opinion, than in acknowledging you need a bit of help and asking for it – I think that’s an attitude we all need to instil into our culture.” I ask whether he still feels there is a stigma to students disclosing mental health issues or accessing services like Nightline. “I like to think we’ve come a long way in tackling that stigma. I think we’re at a point where everyone is equally aware that being a student – being an adult in general, actually – comes with its challenges and struggles.”

“There is no greater strength or bravery than in acknowledging you need a bit of help and asking for it.”

Indeed, mental health issues are high for students in particular – with young people, aged 16-24, more likely to attempt suicide than those in older age groups according to Nightline’s Impact Report 2014. Dom says he thinks that students today have to balance a lot more than they’ve ever had to before. “They have their courses, relationships, jobs, social life, finance, housing and health all to keep on top of. To add to that challenge they’re, usually, away from their normal support networks of friends and family as they’ll have moved to a new environment. It’s a lot of change all at once and both mental and physical health can fluctuate.”

Finally, I ask what students can do to help each other and be aware of others, even if they feel mental health problems don’t personally affect them at all.

Dom responds, “I think it’s mostly about touching base with your friends – ask them how they’re doing regularly.”

He continues by saying that no one is untouched by mental health issues, “it’s important to stress that everyone has mental health, just like everyone has physical health. Not everyone has mental ill-health, just like not everyone has an injury or disease.”

There is a lot students can do to help a friend who may be struggling, Dom tells me, “encourage them to use [support] services and reassure them that it’s OK to accept help. Approach various services to get information – Nightline, and most of the other services on and off-campus, offer information on many issues – so ask for help if you need information.”

“Be sure to look after yourself as well,” he adds, “being there for your friends does not mean becoming their carer or taking on their issues yourself. Be honest and upfront about the extent to which you can help and seek out support if you’re becoming encumbered. If you ever are concerned that someones health might be at immediate risk then contact campus security or the emergency services.”

If you need someone to talk to or would like to find out more about Nightline, visit their website here.

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