Starting university can be a daunting prospect within itself, but beginning during a global pandemic adds another layer of difficulty for new and returning students. Luckily there are brilliant services such as Nightline to offer support. Nightline is a listening service open at night run by and for students. We caught up with Samuel Donnelly, Head of Communications at Nightline to discuss mental health as the new university year begins.
Could you tell us about Nightline, and what makes it unique?
We are student-run and volunteer-led service and offer a confidential listening and information service to students. All our calls are confidential, anonymous, non-judgemental and non-directive. The first Nightline was set up 50 years ago at the University of Essex to give students a listening ear with very few other support services available. The Nightline movement has grown considerably and the world has changed since then but Nightline is still very much needed and still there for students.
We train our volunteers to a high standard of active listening. We are there to listen, but we are not a counselling service. We’re not there to come up with solutions, direct or provide ideas. We want to listen, try and understand the caller’s perspective and show empathy. Often a listening ear can be more powerful than any words that anyone can come up with.
We are pretty much entirely volunteer-run, with one paid member of staff working on improving our training on handling calls discussing suicide.
If you call your local Nightline you will speak to someone who you might not know, but they will have been in a very similar situation to you, such as where they have gone to university and the city they are in. This is what sets Nightline apart from other helplines, as they can relate to your situation. They understand what it’s like to be a student and will do what they can to understand the challenges you might be facing.
How have calls and numbers been affected in lockdown?
It has been a challenging time, as you would expect. In terms of Nightline operations, we’ve seen a lot of our services switch to home working offering support via instant message and email.
From Nightline services across the UK and Ireland, one in four calls wanted to discuss coronavirus and the impact of the pandemic. Obviously it was a new topic for a lot of the volunteers and the callers themselves, but we reacted rapidly to make sure our services could support students through such a challenging issue. We found one in six calls wanted to discuss loneliness, which is triple the rate compared to before and 20 per cent of calls discussed academic stress or related issues, double the proportion we usually receive.
What would you say to students who are anxious about their mental health when returning to their university during a pandemic?
It’s perfectly understandable. As the buzzword is at the moment, these are unprecedented times.
For any student anxious worried about returning to university, we genuinely do understand the challenges. We are doing everything we can in partnerships with other similar organisations, universities and student unions to prepare and be best placed to help people. As part of this, we’re launching our #StillListening campaign to make sure students know that Nightline is still there for them.
In the last academic year, our reach was 1.6 million students in the UK and Ireland, through our 37 services across 123 institutions. We hope that we will be able to continue supporting students when they join or return to university in these challenging circumstances and I’d encourage students to see whether they have access to a local Nightline or to see if there are similar services.
What would someone expect to happen if they called a Nightline service?
Nightline will be there to listen, not lecture, regardless of what you want to talk about. Our volunteers are ready for anyone who needs a listening ear. From a caller’s perspective, you’ll know the nightline volunteer cares about what you’re saying and wants to listen to every word you say.
We are there to empower our service users and break down the isolation that someone may be feeling through active listening. We are caller led but are there to talk through many challenging topics, whether that is academic stress, family, relationships, friendships, mental health, issues around suicide and self-harm, or anything else you can think of. Our services can also provide information, with information calls varying from someone getting in touch to say they have locked themselves out of their halls, to wanting to find out about GP or counselling services on campus. When someone calls Nightline, it can be about anything, and our volunteers will treat them just the same.
There are two strands to Nightline. One is being a caller, and the other is being a listening volunteer. For both, Nightline offers a lot. Nightline offers incredible opportunities to its volunteers. I have found that Nightline has genuinely changed my life. The skills I’ve learned have changed the way that I behave day-to-day and have also helped my work and career progression.
We’ll be looking for more volunteers during such a difficult period, so I would encourage anyone interested in becoming a Nightline volunteer or in joining the Nightline Association to sign up. I’m immensely proud of all the volunteers who have stepped up during such a difficult time and who I know will continue to do so.
Nightline is still here. This is our 50th year and we’ve changed a lot over time, but we are #StillListening.