What’s Nightline All About? A Volunteer’s Perspective

‘Open every night of term between 9pm and 7am’

I am a second year Durham student. I’ve finally started tackling my work load, actually got round to going to Tesco and enjoyed cups and cups of coffee while catching up on all the news my friends had. As a Nightline volunteer, last week I also went to a committee meeting where we discussed the running of Nightline, and a training session on how we can avoid any emotional distress arising from our role. I also spent one night on reserve duty, knowing that I could be asked at any time to replace a volunteer if he or she felt unable to complete a duty for whatever reason.

Sometimes it’s hard not to see Nightline as yet another university society, with its emails, publicity campaigns and calls for volunteers. There are three volunteers who are public faces for Nightline – our director and two members in charge of publicity and training – but often it is seen as a faceless entity, surrounded by an air of mystery, that can be quite frustrating. The finer points of how we run are unknown and because of this, the first questions people usually ask at the training weekend are, understandably, very practical ones: how does the service run? What do people talk to you about? How on earth do you stay up from 9pm to 7am with only one other person for company? I remember being particularly interested in how frequently people called. There is often a sense that potential volunteers want to know for sure that they would take numerous calls, covering a wide range of issues, and really make a difference. This is definitely understandable: if, especially as students, we’re going to commit our time to something new, shouldn’t we be reassured that it will be time spent efficiently?

It’s true that Nightline is here for discussions that everyone would otherwise deem “serious”, but how do we define these issues? Sometimes they’re topics that, in everyday life, provoke strong and automatic reactions of sympathy and a desire to be helpful in finding a solution. Conversely, they might evoke a more negative response, an unwillingness to acknowledge the issue and consequent avoidance of it – brushing it off as “not a big deal”. For several people, neither of these reactions is beneficial, and there may be something to gain from speaking to a volunteer who will never make assumptions, who will never judge you. See us as neutral ground – we understand that when you’re dealing with your own emotions, you don’t always want to be met with someone else’s.

But say you don’t have something “serious” to talk about. Is Nightline still an option for you? There is one answer to this question: yes. It is easy to forget that strong emotions, whether positive or negative, can be caused by a build up of feelings and events that, individually, might seem insignificant but when happening simultaneously can have a very real effect on our wellbeing. Whether it’s one thing, or many, or not even “a thing”, we’re here to listen to you. You deserve to be listened to. Contact us and talk and we’ll listen. Contact us and don’t talk and we’ll listen. We’re here if you’re sad, if you’re lonely, if you’re tired. We’re here for confusion, fear or anxiety. Believe me, we’re here even when you’re happy, excited or relieved. Most importantly, we’re here when you don’t know what you are and what you’re feeling. We won’t put labels on your thoughts, or impress upon you the “seriousness” of your situation, because who are we to understand your feelings any better than you?

Humanity has always been problem-solving but we often stumble at one big problem: there isn’t always a solution. If there is, then it’s entirely individual to the person who’s chosen to contact us. Nightline is non-advisory and non-directive, so we don’t try and direct you down a particular path or even offer a range of solutions – we might never imagine the one that’s best for you. Truth to be told, more than a few people who’ve been on training weekends will tell you that they just couldn’t get their heads round this. Yet the fact is that however “serious” an issue, sometimes advice isn’t wanted or needed, or maybe “the answer” can only come from within and hasn’t quite surfaced yet.

People often ask us why we don’t publish any statistics and whether it’s a way of hiding something or trying to protect ourselves. It’s a valid question and obviously part of the answer lies in one of the crucial principles of Nightline: anonymity. As volunteers we only ever know the content of our own calls. It’s also about respect – how can we say a certain number of students called about depression in a week, if they themselves did not label it depression and we know very little about the individual? Second principle: we don’t judge and we don’t make assumptions. Yes, the people at the top want to know that Nightline is being used, and you as Durham students have the right to know it too. There’s no escaping that we live in a society of efficiency. Yet ultimately, we are not a business, with targets to meet and figures to record; we can’t be expected to take risks or make cuts where wellbeing is concerned. If you happened to be the only person who rang Nightline this week, or even this term, then Nightline would continue to run for you.

So, during the training weekend, we try to demonstrate that Nightline is built on principles of honesty: we don’t claim to be qualified counsellors and we can’t promise a solution but we will never discuss a call or let it become a number. Slowly, the questions potential volunteers ask us always change and it becomes more about emotions, the experiences of both the caller and the volunteer. We can’t deny that the training doesn’t fully prepare you for some of the emotions you may feel after taking a call, especially the realisation that you will never really know whether you have made a difference, or whether you have helped. Yet “helping” can mean all manner of things, whether it’s simply being there for someone who can’t sleep or feels alone, providing information or enabling someone to reach a decision of any magnitude; in that respect, the potential to help is always there, and so we will be too. We’ll be there to listen, from your first night as a fresher until your last night as a finalist. That’s one promise we can make.

Nightline are here every night of term from 9pm to 7am:

· Via phone- the number is on the back of your campus card

· Via instant messaging on our website www.durham.ac.uk/nightline

· And you can always come down to our office for a chat or to pick up supplies, we’re behind the Dun Cow pub on Old Elvet

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