In a recent anonymous interview with a volunteer from Nightline, asking if we would always need the service, I was met with an assertive “yes”. More than perhaps anything else during the course of the interview, this response showed me both the power and the value of such an initiative. Nightline is an overnight listening service run by students, for students. Begun in 1970, the service now comprises over 2,100 specially trained student volunteers at 36 affiliated Nightlines in the UK and Ireland. Over 1.5 million higher education students have access to a Nightline service.
Volunteering at nightline involves long, overnight shifts (9pm to 9am) and difficult conversations. Yet it was clear from the interview that it is not a socially isolating endeavour, as my interviewee strongly emphasised the importance of her peers to her. “There are around 100 of us. We work like any other society, we have socials and stuff as well but then [they are there to talk to] also on shift whilst you are volunteering. Meeting those people is what has made me carry on doing it all the way through university”.
For as much as my interviewee expressed passion for her co-workers, going as far as to say that meeting them had been the best part of the role, the confidence with which she spoke about the service and its value to the student population is what I most took to heart.
As someone with a history of volunteering in the past, and a heart for giving, it was no surprise to me that the person sat in front of me was a Nightline volunteer. At one point in the interview, she described how the service functions. “It is very anonymous, we don’t really give advice or make a judgement and it’s very much more about listening to people’s stories and hearing what they have to say. I soon realised the importance of people having someone to tell their feelings and problems to and the importance of the service to those who don’t have that support network of friends around them, because some people don’t”. Nightline was founded on the premise that talking about your issues to someone, especially when that someone is of a similar age and potentially undergoing similar difficulties, can be incredibly beneficial to students. Indeed, research conducted by YouthSight in 2014 found that of the students who had contacted Nightline to talk about a problem, 87% stated that they felt their mental well being had improved; 79% felt their overall student experience had improved; 79% felt better able to deal with the problem; 75% felt calmer, and 68% felt more positive about the future.
Sometimes people end up talking about some really difficult things with you
As the interview progressed I felt that volunteering for Nightline had certainly been to my interviewee’s benefit. However, the signs of the toll it had taken were also evident. “You don’t sleep. You end up being kind of tired all the time. Also, sometimes people end up talking about some really difficult things with you, so that in itself can be quite tiring. It can be difficult to understand but also it can simply be difficult to cope with, it can affect you quite a lot personally.” In many ways being a volunteer at Nightline is all about sacrifice. According to the official Nightline website, in 2014 student volunteers donated over 181,440 hours at night staffing Nightlines when other university welfare services were closed, which amounted to over £930,787 of free labour. But it is a sacrifice of which lessons and rewards, according to my interviewee, make it worthwhile. “I would say it has definitely changed me,” she said, claiming the experience has helped her “understand that everything isn’t as sort of black and white as I had thought. I also found that I understood people’s emotions a lot better, as well as my own.” Indeed, becoming aware to the vast spectrum of human emotion and of its complexities can help one better understand their own self. Furthermore, through a sacrificial role like this, you are able to feel a tangible goodness in the world through your own actions.
It was evident that such a role can be both a freeing and addictive experience. The anonymous nature of the service means that volunteers are likely to never hear again from individuals whose personal stories they have become invested in: “as a volunteer you can never know what happens to someone who has called in, they could call back or they could not”. Nonetheless, my sense was that the volunteer ultimately felt good that she is able to help in the way she does and provide a person in need with something no one else could give.
In the last decade cases of reported student mental health issues have increased fivefold
Mental health is a prevalent yet contentious issue, especially amongst the student population. Statistics show that in the last decade cases of reported student mental health issues have increased fivefold. However, my interviewee seems to think that this statistic is not as clear cut as it seems. “What has changed I think is that people are more willing to talk about their problems and it’s not as much of a taboo as it perhaps once was. The whole culture around mental health has changed and that’s led people to talk about it more and not keep it in as much.” This idea emphasizes the change in the way people go about disclosing their issues, not on the presence of the issues themselves. This is significant as it cuts to the core of one of the main challenges that arises when discussing mental health. It is not an illness which can be easily assessed externally in the same way that a physical illness can be; the sufferer must first be willing to accept the nature of their problem and, secondly, be willing to discuss it. This is particularly true within the context of a university, in which there are “so many things changing so often and in such a big way it can make life very difficult.” Thus, the ever increasing reports of mental health issues may in reality indicate a culture where people are more willing to discuss their suffering openly as opposed to simply repressing it. This notion is supported by evidence suggesting that the consumption of alcohol and drugs by students has actually gone down over the same time period. If the reported increase in cases of poor mental health reflected a true rise, as opposed to merely a rise in the rate of reporting, one would assume the consumption of drugs and alcohol would increase too, instead of drop as it has done.
With the rise of reported cases of poor mental health, some argue that we are witnessing the development of a ‘snowflake generation’ – one in which young people are growing up weak and self-centered. This idea has become pervasive especially on the right of the political spectrum, with Breitbart criticising ‘campus snowflakes.’ However, the notion that as young people we are all ‘snowflakes’, and that this is somehow a bad thing, is perhaps best addressed in the words of my interviewee: “I am of the opinion that in general talking about things is always better than just not talking about them at all and people do feel things, people do have emotions, people do have different problems in their lives and this could range from like a mental health issue to just a problem with a flat mate or their work or just other stresses. I don’t think we should have to struggle through things alone, we should talk about problems and get help… yes, we are ‘special’ but that’s not a bad thing. Everyone is special and should know that they are and embrace it.”