Guardian Student: ‘My secret life as a student Nightline volunteer’

My latest blog for the Guardian Student, ‘My secret life as a student Nightline volunteer’, does exactly what it says on the tin, detailing my work for The University of Exeter’s student nightlines, Voice.

Last counted, the article has been shared 1,233 times.

The link to the article is here:

The article: 

It’s easy to feel paranoid walking home alone from a club at 2am – especially in a new city, at a university three hours away from home. Your ears are ringing as you walk back to your halls. The unfamiliar streets seem especially dark and eerily quiet. Right now you’d give anything just to hear a friendly voice.

Whether it’s fresher’s week or exams week, a university nightline service can be a life-saver, sometimes literally. Nightlines are student listening services that open in the small hours, relying on student volunteers to run and publicise the service. Nightline currently provides emotional support to over 1.5 million students, with 36 branches based at over 90 universities and colleges over the UK and Ireland.

As a former volunteer for Voice, the University of Exeter’s student nightline, I know first-hand how rewarding – and challenging – the role can be

On a typical shift, I’d arrive just before 8pm, ready for the 12-hour shift ahead. There were usually two or three volunteers a night, depending on whether it was a busy time of the year, such as the exam period. Someone would put the kettle on and bring out the snacks, and we’d all chat, watch a movie or get on with coursework.

I would meet new people on most nights, but there was always a sense of camaraderie. At around 11 or 12pm, we’d climb into makeshift beds and sleeping bags, always with one person next to the phone. The ringtone was loud so there was never any worry about sleeping through.

The number of callers varied every night, which kept us on our toes. Sometimes no one would call, and on other nights the phone would ring minutes after I stepped through the door.

Some calls left me feeling drained. During one of my earliest sessions there was a distressed caller at three in the morning, and the call lasted almost two hours. But it always feels good to know a conversation is genuinely making a difference to someone.

The majority of calls I answered were from students who were either homesick or just wanting reassurance walking home alone, but I was trained for anything: from prank calls to people on the verge of suicide.

Tessa, 19, has done night shifts totalling 250 hours for Exeter’s Voice nightline, and finds the work can take its toll. “Very distressed calls from students can be emotionally taxing,” she says. Her most memorable call was with a final-year student with declining grades and appalling issues at home that no one knew about.

“They had obviously been holding on to all of this emotion for a while without talking about it,” says Tessa. “It’s then that the anonymity part of this job can be upsetting; I have no idea what happened to that caller. On calls like that, you form a relationship. You become emotionally invested in their story.”

The peer-to-peer element of student nightlines helps callers to feel more comfortable than they might talking to staff counsellors. Steven Mills, who set up a nightline service at Robert Gordon University in 2013, says: “In my own experience of the university’s counselling service, I felt that the older counsellors didn’t quite get me.

“Being a gay man, they didn’t get some references I made, or understand student nightlife,” he says. “I think peer-to-peer [services] can be more relatable; callers can talk more freely and informally.”

Interactions over Facebook and Twitter allow students to reach out at any time of the day, and publicity for nightlines also often relies on social media. Will Vasey, 22, general coordinator of Exeter’s Voice nightline, says his branch now posts on YikYak. “We always post when we’re open and seem to get a cracking response with plenty of upvotes. It’s always really heartwarming to see comments from people on Yaks saying we helped them out,” he says.

University wellbeing services can often be over-subscribed, with month-long waiting lists. For students with mental health issues who are waiting to speak to professionals, nightlines provide anonymous help and comfort in the interim. The times of day that nightlines operate are also when students can feel most vulnerable. As a victim of drinks spiking during my first year of university, it’s comforting to know that students wary of sexual assault can speak to someone.

Since nightlines rely on their confidentiality, volunteers must remain anonymous, telling as few friends as possible about their role. As such, it can sometimes feel like thankless work. But Tessa best sums up why we do it: “When callers end the conversation saying they feel a little better, it makes the shifts when we don’t have any calls, the waking up in the middle of the night, the missing out on social plans with friends, all seem worthwhile.”

 If you need someone to talk to, go to the Nightline website to find the number of your local branch. Or contact the Samaritans at 116 123 (UK).

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