A lifeline at NiteLine

NiteLine’s Lara Summers tells Trinity News about the service that helps students, no matter the problem

Prolonged bathroom breaks hiding from essays and revision notes are familiar to any student who has spent an exam season in Trinity. Whether they entail crying, exasperated sighing or dissociating with your head against the stall door, we’ve all been there. During these few moments of respite, you may have noticed the small sticker on the back of the door advertising NiteLine. Leaving the bathroom, you may have also noticed posters tracing laps of Trinity advertising the same confidential service. Although I’ve seen the posters so often they no longer catch my eye, I realised I knew very little about who NiteLine were or what the service does. I sat down with Lara Summers, the newly appointed public face of NiteLine Trinity, to learn more about the service and what they do.

“NiteLine is a confidential, late-night listening and information service, run by students for students.” Lara explains, “The helpline is operated by trained student volunteers between the hours of 9pm and 2.30am, ready to listen to any concerns or issues any student is having.” Callers are able to reach a volunteer within their region every night of term. This means a caller from the Dublin region will be through to a volunteer in one of NiteLine’s affiliated Dublin colleges: University College Dublin (UCD), Maynooth University, Technological University Dublin (TUD), National College of Art and Design (NCAD), Dublin Business School (DBS) and the Royal College of Surgeons (RCSI).

Along with anonymity, NiteLine is centered around three other key pillars: being confidential, non-judgemental and non-directive.”

Anonymity is crucial to NiteLine for both caller and volunteer. NiteLine encourages callers to refrain from giving any identifying information, however if something that might make the caller identifiable is said, the volunteer will simply let them know before the call continues on as normal. 

Along with anonymity, NiteLine is centered around three other key pillars: being confidential, non-judgemental and non-directive. Although the former three are standard among mental health services, the one that stood out was the service being non-directive.  NiteLine differs from other listening services because, while others may offer advice or suggestions on issues, NiteLine is purely there to listen and to help people find further support that suits them if they so choose. 

“Our volunteers will never try to offer advice or provide a solution to a caller’s challenges,” Lara explains, “Our role and training aim to provide a listening service and offer information to callers, but not to give counselling or advice.”

“The peace that can come from just being listened to and vocalising any issues, no matter how big or small, can be a massive relief to students.” 

As a volunteer for NiteLine, Lara hopes to encourage students to reach out regardless of how big or small they feel their issue is. Before volunteering, Lara felt that to access the service, she had to be struggling drastically or have a considerable problem accessing the service. In actuality, the calling scope for NiteLine covers many topics such as loneliness, relationship problems, college strains, mental health difficulties, basically whatever is on a student’s mind at any point in the college term. The service aims to provide an open space where people can talk, explore whatever they may be going through, or even just sit in silence and know that another person is there with them at the other end of the line. “The peace that can come from just being listened to and vocalising any issues, no matter how big or small, can be a massive relief to students.” 

Phone calls with Niteline can last up until one hour and instant messaging chats last two hours one on one with a student volunteer. This is to ensure that volunteers have a quick break before popping back on calls. The volunteer will always give plenty of notice if a call or instant message will soon be coming to an end, and encourage calling straight back if you still want to chat. If you do call back you might go through to another trained volunteer rather than the listener you were previously talking to. The service views all calls as equally important, whether a caller just needs to chat about things that are on their mind, to more severe issues where students might feel like they cannot talk to anyone else. With volunteers also being anonymous students, who may even be a similar age to the caller, the service creates an informal listening space for students to talk through any issues they may have, no matter how big or small. 

To ensure that all callers are listened to and feel supported, NiteLine makes sure that all their volunteers are prepared and ready when answering the phones for the first time. Typically this includes training groups covering different challenges a caller might be facing, the policies of NiteLine and getting to know their fellow volunteers. There is a heavy hands-on approach within the training that includes practising calls and role plays, to make sure volunteers are comfortable and ready before starting to take calls. “Although the process is intensive, it’s enjoyable,” Lara highlights,” as even though it is taken very seriously, you get to expand your circle and develop active listening skills.” 

Volunteers are also supported by NiteLine both during the training process and beyond. All volunteers have bi-weekly support meetings, which allow them to debrief and discuss any issue they might be facing while volunteering. It is essential for NiteLine that all their volunteers are in a safe mental space to go on calls. To ensure this, NiteLine never puts pressure on volunteers on when to volunteer, especially during hectic months. The service asks their volunteers to get involved whenever they can, with the average volunteer answering calls once a month. Volunteers also check in with each other before going on phones for the night to make sure that they are all okay with taking calls. This way, callers can be guaranteed that any volunteer they reach is in the mindset to listen and focus on the caller entirely. There is a strong emphasis on the service of volunteers making sure they are present for themselves before being present for others. 

Even with safe services like NiteLine, many people can find it hard to reach out to someone anonymously and might decide to reach out to friends and family instead. Often when we are the person someone chooses to reach out to, there can be nerves in wanting to show them that we are there for and listening to them. Some great ways to support a friend when they confide in you, as Lara explains, can be with eye contact, gentle head nodding or with acknowledging statements like “I hear you”, “I’m so sorry you are going through this” or “That must be tough.” Repeating what someone has said or asking them gentle questions about what they’ve discussed can also be great ways to communicate that you are listening and allows them to explore their thoughts further. 

Timing reactions can also be necessary. It can be easy to overwhelm someone by responding to them too quickly or making them uncomfortable by not responding when they have discussed a difficult topic. Sometimes, people may not want to discuss something further, and it can be enough to just sit with them and allow them to feel safe. It is also crucial to remember that, although the above are all excellent active listening skills, do not put too much pressure on yourself in these conversations. We are all human, and unfortunately, that means there is no one right thing to say to everyone. The most important thing is for them to feel supported and to remind them that they do not have to go through anything alone.  

With the new school year starting and many students being affected by the pandemic, it is essential to know that there is always someone ready to listen. NiteLine and the services they provide are available to all students, no matter if it’s about a problem they’re facing or just to chat to someone. If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer, NiteLine’s recruitment period usually runs between April and September. In the meantime, there is an expression of interest form available on their website so students can be directly notified in time for the next recruitment period.  Alternatively, NiteLine are always happy to have volunteers help their publicity team and encourage students if that is an area that interests them. If nothing else, just know that there is always someone willing to listen and that no issue you face is one that you have to tackle alone. 

NiteLine can be reached at 1800 793 793 or the instant messaging service available on their website from 9.00pm to 2.30am. You can also give them a follow on instagram @NitelineDublin for wholesome posts throughout the term.