In the first part of my first interview for The Bubble, I sat down with one of the ‘public-facing’ volunteers of Durham’s student-run listening service to discuss the impact of Nightline’s work and the importance of their core principles.
Luke Alsford: You were at Durham’s Freshers’ Fair; how did you describe Nightline and what it offers?
Ben Mensah: I tend to describe it as a student mental health service that is run entirely by students, for students. So, we offer free mental health training to students and active listening training as well. I would suppose that the main thing we are known for, beyond that perhaps, is the phone service and the IM [instant message] service that we run, all the way from 9pm to 7 in the morning. This is also run entirely by students and based off the model that people might not be comfortable speaking to people in their lives about certain things or may just have things that they want to chat about throughout the night.
LA: There are many U.K.-wide helplines that people can call if they want to talk or if they are struggling, I wonder why is it important to have a helpline specifically for Durham students, run by Durham students?
BM: I think the original sort of impetus for setting up Nightline was an awareness of a reservation in students to be able to speak to a service like Samaritans because it is often run by people older than them and [with] not necessarily the same life circumstances. The Samaritans are often known for their incredible work within suicide and self-harm type calls, perhaps students would feel that they’re not necessarily able to just phone up to be able to chat with somebody. Whereas Nightline was established to be whatever that individual might need, whether that could be the more heavy kind of things, and things that they don’t feel comfortable talking about with anybody else, or whether it is literally just that they’re walking home at night, and they want to chat to somebody and don’t want to feel like they’re taking up someone’s time. So, I think it does just come back to being able to find that common ground with the person you’re on the phone with, regardless of the fact that all of the volunteers are anonymous.
LA: I have seen a lot on Nightline’s social media, that this reaching for common ground is founded in your principles of being non-judgmental and non-aligned. Why are these principles so important for Nightline?
BM: I feel like I get asked this question quite a lot. It’s deeply difficult to really open up to or disclose anything to somebody who you know is going to judge what you’re saying. If you come to somebody, and you essentially just want to tell them about your experiences, and how you’ve been feeling recently, and they sort of meet you with, “Well, that’s a stupid way to feel,” or, “You shouldn’t feel like that,” you’re then not inclined to want to share anything else with them. We want to embody the opposite of that: being entirely open to the experience of that person, not assuming anything about them, whether that be their age, gender identity, their sexual orientation, anything like that. I feel like the non-judgment for us is just providing an open space for people to be able to approach us without necessarily feeling that they have to fit a certain bill, or say the right thing. We are there for everybody, regardless. On the non-advisory point, that sort of ties into similar concepts and not wanting to make assumptions about people. Because despite the fact that some of our phone calls are on a longer end of a timescale, we very much believe that you can’t know a person in the totality, within a half-an-hour, two-hour or, ten-hour phone call, you could not entirely encapsulate that person and all of their life experiences and everything about their situation. And so, we don’t necessarily put the burden on our volunteers to try and solve their problems, but rather to explore their situations with them enough that they feel empowered to be able to make their own decisions as the single best person and the single most equipped person to know and understand their own situation.
LA: Do you think everyone would benefit from the training that you provide to Nightline volunteers? Would we all benefit from learning those kinds of principles of being non-aligned and non-judgmental?
BM: I mean I’m biased in saying that this training is going to be beneficial, right? But I do truly believe it would be. Our volunteers have seen the project and realise the impact that it can have on their own life, and on the lives of the people around them. And it’s a force for good that they believe in. In my mind, we’re not necessarily teaching people some flowchart and exactly what they should do, we’re giving them tools that they can use in ways that feel natural to them, and that they can employ in perhaps more sensitive or support-based conversations or roles in their life. I don’t necessarily feel like active listening principles have a place in every single conversation. There are going to be situations in your life with a friend where they are going to ask you directly for advice, or they’re going to want your judgment on something, or the conversation isn’t going to be solely focused on that person in the way that active listening would. So I’m not saying that it’s some panacea to all conversations, but I think there’s definitely situations that have come up in my life where I truly believe that active listening has impacted the trajectory of a person’s life. I did once meet a man, who had recently broken up with his wife. And he had just never been able to speak to anybody about it, and eventually just talking to him as a complete stranger, [he] disclosed that he was planning on ending his life that night. And after he was able to talk and really get things off his chest in a way that he never had before, he was suddenly willing to give things another go and to try repair elements of his life. I’m not trying to say it [active listening] is the be-all and end-all. And of course, I think all other Durham student mental health support services have their place.
LA: How do you reflect on these interactions or calls you have with people, who are in need, and you give them advice, and you feel that you’ve been able to make a positive impact? How does that make you feel?
BM: I think it can’t be understated, that it does take some kind of mental toll on us. I personally think it’s a privilege to be able to sit down with a person in a moment of genuine vulnerability, and to be there for them in a way, which a lot of the time other people aren’t willing to. I think, despite the fact that after a call, I can sit there and go, “Wow, that was kind of heavy,” and I can feel that I need to take a little bit of timeout, to take care of myself, I have never once regretted setting foot in that office, and I’ve never once regretted picking up the phone. Even just from volunteering when we were all in COVID and the service was restricted, I saw people able to voice things that have been on their mind for so long, and come out of hour-long conversations saying that, “It’s genuinely helped so much, thank you so much.” That’s not to say that we’re doing it for any kind of pride or clout. But I think that genuine fulfilling feeling of, “I’ve made a difference to how this person’s night or day or even week is going”, for me that’s deeply worthwhile. I think I’m aware of how much work it has taken to run a service like this. And I can’t understate the fact that it is difficult. It’s going to be difficult, but I only have love for it. I think that’s why I’m sat here today.