Chatting with Niteline

Thomas Rafferty delves beyond the phone lines to uncover the volunteers working hard to support students in Trinity

Niteline is a well-known name on campus. Largely due to its ubiquitous posters in seemingly every bathroom in Trinity, most of us are aware the organisation exists. However, for students who have not used the service themselves, Niteline is also something of a mystery. To shed light on the service and the benefits it provides to the student community, I spoke with two members of the TCD Niteline staff.

The majority of Niteline’s student volunteers remain anonymous, but each college affiliated with the organisation has a public face whose role is to humanise the service. Cillian Crosson, a fourth-year Maths, and English student is the ambassador in Trinity. His involvement began two years ago as a regular volunteer, and since then Niteline has become, “the single best thing” he has done in college.

Essentially, Niteline is a student-run “listening service”; using a freephone number or through online messaging, students can contact the service to discuss anything on their mind, from small stresses to more serious issues. As the Niteline website states, “some people don’t talk at all”. Student volunteers answer calls and messages and undergo an eight-week training programme, involving practice calls with other volunteers and specialist training for specific issues that callers may have.

The training process is influenced by other Irish organisations such as the LGBT Helpline and Samaritans. At the core of the training, however , and the factor which makes Niteline unique, is a philosophy that Crossan describes as “listening without giving judgment or telling people what to do”.  

According to Crosson, the service is guided by four core principles; anonymity, confidentiality, being non-judgemental and being non-directive. This non-directive approach is a defining characteristic of the service, and as Niteline’s coordinator Aisling Curtis explains, is important because “only the caller knows the unique ins-and-outs of their situation, the specific challenges and variables”.

Niteline volunteers are not trained counsellors, and so the service they provide is one which facilitates a conversation, rather than leading it. Curtis says that by offering people a space to talk, “callers often come to a conclusion that is best for them”.

The issues that callers to Niteline talk about are varied, ranging from college stresses to relationship issues, and self-harm to general chat. Most problems, however, revolve around mental health; 34 percent of calls feature mental health issues. Sometimes these issues are as serious as grappling with suicidal thoughts. Over the last two years, however, the share of Niteline’s calls that centre around self-harm and suicide have fallen from 17 percent to 9 percent.

According to Crosson, this is not an indication that suicide is becoming less of an issue, but rather that students now feel more comfortable discussing “what would be deemed as less serious issues”. Crosson mentions that this is a positive development, one which indicates a reduction of the stigma surrounding mental health. Indeed, it would seem that many students do feel more comfortable talking about their feelings, as Niteline’s call volume increases every year.

According to Crosson, the stigma around men’s mental health is one which remains problematic. Indeed, more female than male students avail of Niteline’s service. A gender stereotype issue exists, says Crosson: “a toxic masculinity which discourages men from a young age from talking about how they’re feeling – it seems unmasculine”.

This stigma has a wider social relevance, considering that three out of four suicides in Ireland are committed by men. Crosson encourages all students, regardless of gender, to talk to somebody – “it’s the first step to making a situation better”.

Given the lack of services available to address mental health issues in Ireland, Niteline’s successful work with students is heartening. One of the major advantages of the service, according to Curtis, is that all of its volunteers are students themselves: “having an empathetic, caring individual on the other end of the phone or screen, who’s willing to listen to you for hours and provide you with support and attention, is cited by many callers as being an incredibly positive experience”.

The service is beneficial not only to its callers but also to its volunteers. Active listening skills and the ability to have meaningful and supportive conversations with friends in real life are gained from volunteering. Crosson joined the Niteline team after experiencing mental health issues of his own and recognises the value in speaking about his feelings to others. Although “not every call is going to be life-changing”, he says that “it’s just so nice to be there for somebody to talk to – a really great feeling”.

An aspect of Niteline which sets it apart from other sources of support is its instant messaging service, launched in 2012 and the first of its kind in Ireland. Today, more students use online messaging than calling to contact Niteline; a sign of the digital age, but also highlighting the benefits of the complete anonymity that this medium brings. According to Curtis, the low-stress and confidential nature of the platform make students feel safe when using it.

Niteline in Dublin is but one faction of a much larger network of other Niteline listening services, spread around Ireland, the UK, and further afield. The Dublin group has recently helped to set up services in Belfast and Paris and was named Niteline of the Year in 2017.

 The long-term goal is for the services to eventually become available to every student in Ireland. The organisation continues to expand and diversify here in Dublin, with the launch of a new publicity programme called “Friends of Niteline”.

This will offer publicity roles to students who are not directly involved in taking calls but will be responsible for raising awareness, running events, and encouraging open discussion of mental health on campus.

The most striking characteristic of Niteline is its openness; there is no issue too big or too small that cannot be spoken about on an anonymous call. Both of the interviewees featured here emphasised that the most important element of the service is the act of speaking to someone else, without fear of being judged or told what to do.

For this reason, it is clear that Niteline provides an invaluable safe space for students to speak their minds and be listened to.

Niteline is open from 9 pm to 2:30 am every night of term on 1800-793-793.

Online listening is available at