A night with Nightline – the tireless volunteers looking out for fellow students’ mental health

As a fresher struggling with poor mental health, I knew how easy it is to shut yourself away at university. In a sprawling, often isolating city like London, the new challenges posed by student life, from homesickness to imposter syndrome, seemed almost impossible to manage at the time.

I spent my first few weeks at UCL feeling lonely and lost. After many serious conversations with my friends and family back home, I decided to defer my degree to work on my wellbeing at home.

When I returned from my gap year, I felt much more capable of looking after myself as well as others, and I began searching for voluntary positions in the field of mental health. I wanted to help somehow in combatting the inaccessibility and inadequacy of mental health care on campus and beyond.

I knew that there were thousands of students in my position – frustrated by lengthy waiting lists for NHS and university referrals, and disheartened by the ludicrous cost of private therapy. On top of this, I imagined that many of them would be dealing with these problems alone. That’s when I found Nightline.

Since its founding in 1970 at Essex University, the charity has provided direct emotional support to students across the UK. Its purpose is simple but effective: people get in touch to talk about their worries, anonymity ensured, and Nightline is there to listen. It now has 36 local branches and supports students at over 60 affiliated institutions across London.

After several lengthy training sessions, I started volunteering at the London branch.Across the autumn term of 2018 alone, volunteers corresponded with over 900 students.

While Nightline volunteers can’t offer the insight of counsellors, they encourage callers to find their own solutions through reflection, open-ended questions, and widening discussion to the bigger picture.

I shared my first shift with Archie, and it was a little nerve-wracking at first. The lines open between 6pm until 8am the following morning, so I knew the time commitment might take its toll. But I soon settled into the flow of a typical night at Nightline, and was grateful that at least one other volunteer would always be there to take turns with the phone. During my shift, we answered instant messages, texts, emails as well as phone calls.

Before arriving at the office, I had pictured something akin to a busy call-centre. Instead I arrived at a comfortable office complete with bean bags and a well-stocked kitchen. The large desks ensure volunteers have the option to get on with some work in comfort. When volunteers want to get some sleep, the phone and laptops are propped close by, with their volume up high enough that any correspondence won’t be missed.

“I found that having an external, impartial person listen to you was really comforting”

Though the environment is a supportive one, volunteers can have no idea what to expect when the phone rings. This is why training sessions prepare volunteers to handle all sorts of scenarios, including abusive calls and those relating to suicide. It was invaluable when I had a particularly tough conversation of my own.

There are moments in the year, too, when stress noticeably heightens across the student population. One former Nightline Co-ordinator, who worked outside of London, observed that freshers’ week remained the busiest period in terms of volume, while more in-depth calls were common from those staying at university over Christmas.

Whatever the call’s subject, a volunteer’s rule of thumb is to always provide a neutral and accepting ear to people’s worries.

Callers may fear interference, or judgement from their peers about discussing mental health so Nightline alleviates the pressure of suffering in silence.

In her first year at university, former volunteer Eliza, 22, understood the benefits of the service after using it herself. “Although it was only one call, I found that having an external, impartial person listen to you was really comforting” she explains.

While its function is important, I found that the most consistently difficult rule to follow as a volunteer was being unable to give advice. Practicing this, however, also develops one of the most rewarding skills to be gained from volunteering at Nightline: deep, active listening.

For both volunteers and callers alike, the value of Nightline’s role cannot be overstated. Where mental health services remain virtually inaccessible for many UK students, the charity continues to step in nightly to remind them that they’re not alone.

Names of people have been changed on request. To contact Nightline call them on 0207 631 0101.


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