Most students recognise the name. When trying to remember where they recognise it from, it usually brings up flashbacks of sitting on the loo in the arts block toilets and reading the replies to someone’s existential crisis scribbled out on one of their posters. However, Niteline is so much more than those little blue stickers that provide a platform for often hilarious bathroom reading. It is a free, anonymous support service for all students. An organisation built upon the ethos of being a listening, support and information service run for and by the students of TCD, DCU, NCAD, RCSI, UCD, NUIM and all of their affiliated colleges. It offers nightly support through their phone lines and Online Listening service through instant messaging are open from nine in the evening until half-two in the morning and no problem is too big or too small.
Volunteers don’t have any information about your identity, where you’re calling from or what university you attend and as such, both listener and caller remain completely anonymous. It is also a non-directive service whereby volunteers won’t give you advice or direct you towards making a particular decision. However, while we may all have some level of knowledge about the service, it has been for the most part, been an organisation shrouded in a level of mystery.Who operates the service? Who are the people who volunteer to take calls? Will they understand my problems? Firstly, Niteline is funded by by the SU’s of the participating universities and as such it operates as a student service. With regard to those who volunteer with them, the main piece of information that Niteline wants to put across is that all the volunteers are students from the universities involved in the service. All volunteers remain anonymous but the point remains that they are your peers. Chances are your best friend could be a volunteer and you wouldn’t know due to their strict confidentiality policy. Thhe level of ambiguity surrounding the volunteers is an issue that Niteline has decided to address through their new Public Faces campaign. They want students to know that they are more personable than the posters around college, that students just like you are there to listen to your problems and most importantly, won’t be judgemental about them.
In attempting to create a more open image of who their volunteers are, Niteline has launched its Public Faces campaign with Hannah Ryan and Aaron Watson as the faces of the campaign. Hannah and Aaron have both previously been volunteers and came forward in order to further the the development of the service and hopefully reach and inform thousands of students. Aaron Watson expands on the ideas behind the Public Faces Campaign and the more approachable image of Niteline they want to put across: “As we’re kind of hidden away…there’s a huge distance there and that’s not something that you want when you’re talking about really sensitive issues. You don’t want to feel that these people are completely far removed from you. What’s the point in having a peer to talk to if you feel like they’re a million miles away? We’re meant to be here so we’re closer to what’s going on with you and properly empathise with it.”
“What is possibly the most daunting part about calling a service like Niteline is the idea that one of your friends or someone you know will answer the phone…As Niteline is anonymous, the caller needs to feel free to say whatever they want without worrying about seeing the volunteer the next day so we do want to avoid that happening. At the same time though, we cater to five universities, which is between 60 and 70 thousand students so the chances of actually recognising the volunteer is slim to none.”
The plan to go forward with the this campaign led from the idea of creating a closer relationship with students and also from the need to have actual volunteers, who operate the phones and online listening service to be present at Niteline stands during Mental Health Week or Freshers Week in order to really put a face to the service. They also want to offer more opportunities to those who want to volunteer but don’t necessarily want to work the phones. as Aaron explains, “there’s a lot of people who help out that aren’t on the phones, as not everyone has the skills to be a listener and others just don’t like it and we want to expand on that.”
What is possibly the most daunting part about calling a service like Niteline is the idea that one of your friends or someone you know will answer the phone. Aaron says that ‘it is always a danger and we do have policies in place to deal with those situations but the main issue is that if you feel you know someone, you don’t have the same relationship on the phone then. As Niteline is anonymous, the caller needs to feel free to say whatever they want without worrying about seeing the volunteer the next day so we do want to avoid that happening. At the same time though, we cater to five universities, which is between 60 and 70 thousand students so the chances of actually recognising the volunteer is slim to none.”
The lives of students in Ireland have become much more fraught and stressful in the past number of years with higher student contribution charges, grant cuts, less part-time jobs available and the prospect of unemployment after graduation. As such, one can’t help but be curious as to which issues are more prevalent among student who phone or chat to Niteline volunteers. While Aaron must remain within the realms of his confidentiality agreement, he does accede that “every call is different and as such it’s hard to tie down which issues are more prevalent among students than others. For the most part though, I find that most people end up discussing at length why they are feeling stressed. Stress is always a key issue, whether it’s brought on by exams or troubles with friends or whatever may be happening in your life at that moment.”
In terms of trying to break the stigma around mental health, Aaron believes that while there is some level of stigma attached, things have also changed hugely since he started as a volunteer five years ago. “When I’m doing publicity now, people are much more open to chatting and asking questions about Niteline whereas before people were a bit more wary of being labelled for even coming up and talking to us. Campaigns in recent years have also really pushed the message that it’s okay to talk, which is exactly what Niteline is for. We want to put forward the simple message that volunteers are there for you and that the conversation goes no further. We also want to stress that volunteers there for you to talk whether it’s for a more friendly chat or a more formulaic, structured conversation, Niteline is really just there for whatever style the caller wants. We just let callers do whatever they can to make themselves feel better.”
When asked if there is a protocol for recommending certain avenues of help, such as the college counselling service, Aaron says that their training is very similar to that of Peer Support, “which is mainly active listening training and role play training so that volunteers can deal with these types of charged calls but we don’t volunteer information, if we think someone is at a point where they need info or if they ask for it, we can offer them information but everything is really left in the hands of the caller.”
As with many things, Public Faces is currently a trial scheme, but as Aaron expounds, “the main thing is that we want to humanise the service and get us out there so that we can actively participate and volunteer with events like Mental Health Week and by being more involved we do get more volunteers from the likes of the Welfare Committee. We want to show that we’re personable and that we’re not just this hidden shadow that works from 9pm.”
If you would like to volunteer with Niteline, they take on volunteers at the start of the academic year. The application process simply involves filling out a form online and extensive training is given to groups of volunteers thereafter. The training committee gets in touch, then there’s an interview process and if chosen there is an eight week training session.
If you ever feel the need to talk, Niteline is there on 1800 793793 and the online listening service is also available at niteline.ie.