Hanging on the Telephone

Evening after evening during term time, the Niteline helpline acts as a sounding board for Irish students across the east coast. Leanne Waters meets with one of the organisation’s volunteers to find out more about the servicesSo we’ve all seen the posters as we wash our hands in the bathroom, and we’ve all given the “Sure, that’s a great service!” comment, but what is Niteline all about? After speaking with Niteline volunteer Sarah*, I discovered that the student-run organisation is much more than just an amateur help line.Operating across six major Irish colleges (UCD, Trinity, RCSI, NCAD, DCU and NUI Maynooth) the service caters for thousands of students along the east coast. Celebrating its fourteenth birthday this year, Niteline was set up in 1995 by the Students’ Union of Trinity College with governmental support at the time. There were several similar services already in operation in the UK, and many more having been established since. With Trinity and UCD being the first colleges to get on the bandwagon, Sarah explains how the Irish organisation modelled itself on its British counterparts.IMG_7854“We adopted what was already in place in Britain. They’re all structured very differently. There are – I think – two conferences annually as well, and we send one or two people over there just so we can learn from each other.”The Niteline volunteers themselves undergo an eight-week training programme before taking any calls. This training is loosely based, though not directly linked, on a Samaritans model. And even after training, the volunteers are carefully screened. Sarah talks me through the way in which the helpline’s volunteers deal with the scenarios they may encounter on any nightly shift.“One of the things we do is to give out information. If we think that what they [the callers] are seeking is something we can’t provide, we will often try to give them the name of a service that does offer it. We can’t give direct advice so if there’s a more appropriate service out there, we’ll try to tell them about it.”Volunteers are trained on the basis of four major policies: non-direction, non-judgementalism, confidentiality and anonymity. The most notable of these is Niteline’s uncompromising position on anonymity.“One of the reasons people find the anonymity good is because they know they don’t have to see us everyday. They don’t know who we are. They don’t have to be wary around us.”This raises the excellent point that when people talk about their problems, a certain level of vulnerability is attained. In this way, as neither the volunteer nor the caller know each other, the vulnerability element is greatly limited and in many ways, removed. Personal reputations and social façades are therefore unaffected, providing a tremendous level of reassurance for the caller.As regards the undertaking of a non-directive approach, Niteline are adamant about not interfering in the lives of their callers, but to simply provide an outlet for students in which they can extensively or otherwise discuss how they’re feeling. Moreover, they encourage and assist callers in coming to their own solutions about various problems and circumstances.“Only they [the callers] know what’s best for them and the more they come to that conclusion, the better. If they’re having trouble finding out what that is, I think that’s the service we provide. A lot of what people talk about is something they’ve never talked about before, or something they’d never talk to anyone about. Even saying it out loud is a big deal, because they’re admitting to themselves, while admitting to someone else, that they have this issue.”However, Niteline is not a service restricted to just a few facets of student life. While volunteers are qualified to receive calls of a very urgent nature, they also cater to a tremendously broad spectrum of problems and conversations. Often people mistakenly interpret their problems as perhaps being too small. Despite this, Niteline vehemently maintains that there is no such thing as a small problem. Sarah is at pains to emphasise this.“We really want people to know that there’s anything they can talk to us about at all. But I think one of the big problems is that people need to feel fine about asking for help. You need to know that that’s okay: there’s nothing wrong with seeking help, in any shape or form. If you need to, you need to.”In essence, Niteline is not only for those who need to talk about their problems, but anybody who needs to talk at all. In the great hustle and bustle of college life, loneliness is rife and unfortunately, often unnoticed. But callers can find comfort in the fact that “you don’t even have to call up because you have a problem; you may just want to chat to someone, just to hear someone’s voice [...] I think loneliness is a big deal. People find themselves feeling kind of down and just don’t know why. It could well be because you just don’t have someone to talk to. And you can talk to us.”It is fair to say that in recent times awareness of mental health in Ireland is more prominent in daily life, a fact made most obvious by events such as Mental Health Awareness Week and organisations such as the newly established Mental Health Ireland. As regards this sometimes sensitive topic, Sarah remarks that “colleges are being very emphatic on it and with health and welfare, I think mental health is really being advertised in Ireland because it’s not something people in Ireland tend to mind.“Everybody does have problems, but you don’t have to deal with them yourself. I think not asking for help is a big thing. People don’t ask for help; they see themselves as having to be strong enough to take care of something alone, and then their needing to ask for help becomes another problem again. A very corny way of viewing it is that even the tallest buildings need a lot of support. Everybody needs help. We’re social animals. You need that support.”Today it seems mental welfare is finally being valued on a public health level, not only with help lines such as Niteline, but with many other forms of publication and media. Television advertisements have started urging us all to “take care of your mental health” – now it’s simply a matter of convincing people that this is true. It’s simply not sustainable to say that people in Ireland feel that there’s a stigma on mental health. Depression in particular is a very difficult thing to pick up on, when there is no clear physical manifestation of this illness. Sarah tells me about her own encounters with callers suffering from the illness.“It’s not like an eating disorder where there’s this obvious fluctuating weight and this really abnormal behaviour. Depression is a massive issue with mental health. It’s a very insidious disorder. People just feel down, but they feel like that for a long time. You sort of can’t move or get out of bed in the morning. You just have no motivation or anything. And I think people don’t recognise that as being abnormal behaviour.”Another misinterpretation often made by people is that they feel asking for help is a weakness. Much of what this is down to is that students are always afraid of what their peers are going to think; especially if this is something they’ve been quite quiet about. It’s something they have never said. If they say it to someone, that confidant is often taken aback to think that a person they thought was absolutely fine is in fact struggling with a problem. However big or small that problem may be, there will always be an element of surprise.This is an image of ourselves that we are never fond of: in discussing it with another, one will always have in their mind that a friend’s perception of them is now in some way altered. In this way, sometimes talking to a complete stranger helps greatly. Sarah was particular about the non-judgemental nature of the organisation’s volunteers.“I do think sometimes callers are worried that you’re judging them, but we emphasise any time we think someone is feeling reserved about something that we honestly don’t mind. We’re not going to judge you. This is all about you. This is about the person. This isn’t about anything they’ve done or the kind of person they are. It’s about helping them through whatever problem they’re having.”The fact that Niteline is a noctural organisation also acts as a fantastic bonus. Though initially arranged this way simply for convenience, the night-time hours allow for a much greater degree of confidentiality among volunteers and callers alike. While giving volunteers the opportunity to tend to their other commitments, the Niteline hours also mean that callers can contact the service in their most private moments of solitude.“If you feel that there’s something you can’t do and you continue to do it anyway, trying to manage this thing by yourself, you’re only going to feel that it’s even harder. The sooner you seek help, the better off you’ll be.”The Niteline phone lines are open on Mondays from 9:00pm-1:30am, and Thursdays to Sundays from 9:00pm-2:30am. Niteline is a free service and can be reached at 1800 793 793.