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Lessons Learned | Volunteering at a Telephone Support Line


I have secret. I have called a depression support line before. It was one of those moments that I felt the utmost despair that depression can bring. I could only imagine the person on the other side of the phone. I could talk to him, and I knew I was not burdening him.

When I met Kate, when she interviewed to apply for a volunteer position with CandleX, I was intrigued by her experience as a mental health support line volunteer. Here is her reflection about providing help to the callers. I’d like to take the chance to thank all help line volunteers who have given a hug to a soul by being with them through difficult moments.

- Xiaojie

Author | Kate

Editor | Xiaojie, Mara

It’s 2:00 am and I hear the phone ring. Like any time when I get woken up in the middle of the night, I feel confused and kind of annoyed. I feel especially confused when I realise that this is not my bed. Then suddenly, it’s all clear. It’s my first night volunteering at a mental health support line and that ringing noise means this is my first call!

The five or so steps to the phone seem so long and I am feeling really nervous. I’ve role-played this situation so many times in volunteer training but this is a real caller. What if I mess up? My co-volunteer and I pick up the phones together- I will talk and she’ll listen and step in if needed, most likely the caller will never hear her. Then I hear the caller’s voice. Instantly I feel a sense of calm rush over me. It’s not about me or my nerves anymore it’s just about being present and listening. During this first call, like many I would take as a phone line volunteer, the caller talked to me about their self-harm and depression. Hearing callers talking about depression had a big impact on me, especially hearing about the feelings of loneliness and hopelessness callers often felt.

I went on to volunteer for the next two years, only stopping when I left university and moved to Beijing. Like many universities in the UK, mine had a Nightline, a phone line open through the night (8:00pm-8:00am) for students to call if they were experiencing mental health difficulties, challenging life events or just wanted to talk. Although many calls centred on depression, people called about a huge variety of topics including: anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, study stress, relationship problems, coming to terms with and exploring their sexuality, homesickness, and, of course, prank callers who just wanted to waste your time.

To become a volunteer you had to complete a training course where you learned the importance of being non-judgemental- not giving our opinions, non-advisory - not giving advice or suggestions, and confidential- not talking about what specific callers had discussed. It’s not easy following these policies as a volunteer, especially when people ask you directly- what should I do? What do you think? But they are really important as volunteers don’t have the necessary training and knowledge to give advice like a professional. It’s easy to see these policies as very limiting, but really they are there to help you listen and, where appropriate, help the caller evaluate their own options and thoughts for themselves - so as not to be just another voice telling them what to do. When someone feels they are alone with a mental health problem, just being heard and having their emotions recognized can mean everything. This means that just listening can be really powerful.

I have adopted this non-advisory approach in my real life. Now, when a friend comes to talk to me I try to resist rushing to give my opinion or advice and give them lots of time to express what is going on in their own words. I try not to ask leading questions like, “Did that make you feel angry?” and ask more open questions like “How did that make you feel?” Finally, before giving my advice and explaining what I think they should do, I often ask what solutions or options they have considered. Then I talk through those options with them. I am not saying I talk to my friends like a stranger on a phone line but I have learned the value of listening, particularly active listening.

Active listening is a technique often used in mental health counselling but also promoted in businesses and conflict resolution. For anyone with friends and family with mental health problems learning to listen actively can help ensure your loved one feels heard and understood. How often when you are in a conversation do you feel like you are just waiting to reply? Active listening is about focusing on really understanding what the other person is saying and responding to show the speaker you understand. This means giving your full focus to what the person is saying by eliminating distractions for example by trying to find a quiet place to talk, sitting with your hands still, not fidgeting, and stopping other tasks.

As you are listening and analysing information it is important to respond to show you’re listening. This can be through non-verbal responses such as maintaining eye contact and making noises like “mmmhmm” that show that you are listening; and verbal responses like paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is when you take details of what the person has said and reflect it back to them for clarification, not necessarily using the same words but the main points of what they have said. Such as, “It sounds like your new medication is helping but also making it really difficult for you at work.” This shows the speaker you are listening and can also help you check your understanding is correct. I found using these active listening techniques to not only be really helpful as a volunteer, but also in my personal life. I think we often underestimate the power of listening. Focussing on your own listening skills can help us support a loved one with mental health difficulties.