Recently admitting a new group of volunteers, Nightline is the student-run, anonymous listening and information service of the University of St Andrews, serving students of the University for over 40 years.
In line with the Nightline Association, a service offered at many other universities around the UK, they answer questions and speak to student concerns over phone, instant messenger, and email from 8 pm to 7 am every night.
The Saint sat down with Daniel Johnstone, one of the two publicity officers of Nightline, to discuss the experience of working as a Nightline volunteer, what students may not know about the service, and general tips and advice for students on self-care and mental health.
A third-year medical student, Mr Johnstone is an ex-listening volunteer who gave up his anonymity to serve as a public face of Nightline. After hearing about Nightline before arriving at university, he entered the competitive application process and served as a volunteer until February of his second year when he went public.
On his motivation to get involved, he said, “I always knew that I wanted to help other people in every single way I can, which is part of my motivation for studying medicine. And when I went and got looking into what Nightline does, it’s very simply just listening to people, and there’s no more rewarding way than to actually just listen to somebody speak about their problems and be the person that someone turns to.”
To become a volunteer, students must go through a written application, interview, and finally training.
Mr Johnstone noted, “Training is quite intensive. We always tell our new volunteers it will be a very emotionally and time-consuming intense two weekends.”
Over those two weekends, volunteers go through about 14 hours of training, and afterwards, their shifts are still supervised by an experienced volunteer for some time.
During the training, volunteers learn how to be comfortable talking with “anyone about anything,” meaning they learn how to respond to situations ranging from relationship issues and exam stress to sexual assault and suicide.
However, volunteers also learn how to actively listen, which Mr Johnstone noted is “one of the most underrated bits of communication.”
He said, “Active listening is about responding to a situation and making the other person feel as if they’re being listened to.”
He later added, “On the phone, you’re designed to help the other person come to their own conclusions, so all you do is act as a sounding board for their emotions, and that can be through any sort of situation at all.”
While going through his own training as a first year, Mr Johnstone had learned the basis for active listening in medical school but did not realise the importance of certain types of questions when comforting someone.
“You can just summarise what someone feels and it means such a great deal to them. I didn’t really realise any of that.”
Additionally, Mr Johnstone noted he was clueless when it came to written active listening, a task of volunteers when communicating via Nightline’s email and instant messaging services.
“I had no idea how on earth in an email you sound empathetic and you sound like you’re listening to someone.” He continued, “Instant messaging is comparable to text messaging, and I am the worst texter, I like double and triple text, but Nightline taught me how to actually respond to someone in a really caring and empathetic way and make sure they know they’re being valued and listened to, and not just sending emojis or something.”
Describing what Nightline is to him, and part of his job as Publicity Officer, Mr Johnstone described the service as a “one-stop shop.”
He added, “We can do a lot in Nightline, and people need to realise that you can turn to us for anything … If it’s on your mind, we want to hear about it. If it’s troubling you, we want to help you through that.”
Unlike Student Services, Nightline is non-advisory, meaning they cannot give advice to students. However, Mr Johnstone noted the benefit of this as the volunteers are students and it could prove dangerous for student volunteers to start giving advice.
Furthermore, while Student Services asks students for their matriculation number, despite individual conversations being confidential, Nightline is completely anonymous. No matter what medium students use to contact a volunteer, each works through a privatised server so that the Nightline volunteer never sees a student’s name, just a randomised number.
As Publicity Officer, Mr Johnstone works to advocate information about what Nightline is and how it can be accessed to students.
On the responsibilities behind publicity, he noted, “It’s things like the exam packs which we give away [and] are all done by publicity officers, hall postering, where we stick a poster in all 3,781 rooms of halls, right down to just engagement with people at Freshers’ Fayre on stalls and at bake sales.”
He added, “We are sort of responsible for portraying Nightline’s image across, which is quite a big task because it is such an amazing service and I personally never feel like I do it justice … but being able to actually speak and shout about Nightline is such a privilege because I’m shouting on the behalf of so many of my anonymous friends who would love to be able to shout about this amazing service but they just can’t.
“Having that honour of being there and representing this amazing, wonderful bunch of people is one of the best things I could imagine doing.”
Reminiscing on his experiences and interactions as a public face, a position he served for over a year, Mr Johnstone noted that Nightline has been the biggest life-changing experience of his life.
“I know it’s very cliché to say it was life-changing, but being an anonymous listening volunteer is life-changing, in a simple way that every time a phone rings, my heart races … right down to the people you meet, because the anonymous community is so strong.”
Discussing what it’s like to be on shift as a volunteer, Mr Johnstone noted that whenever he picked up the phone, no matter his experience, his heart raced because of the uncertainty of what lay on the other end of the line.
“It would go off in the middle of the night at 4 am, but you would then sort of realise that someone is reaching out in this lonely hour of the night, and you’re the only voice that’s going to be there for them. You’re the only person that can be there to listen at this time.
“No matter what I picked up the phone to, whether it was unfortunately a suicide call or whether it was asking for a taxi number, I just felt so privileged and humbled that someone had actually thought of calling Nightline in that time.
“To be there for someone in their greatest time of need is just the most humbling experience I’ve ever had.”
As a third-year medical student, Mr Johnstone is slowly preparing to leave St Andrews and enter the medical world, possibly the mental health sector specifically.
While working over the summer in Accident and Emergency, he saw many cases related to mental health, ranging from simple panic attacks to psychotic episodes.
Speaking on the separation between mental and physical health in medicine, he said, “Especially in medical curricula, mental health is vastly underrated. It’s getting better, but it’s still very much separate because you can’t see it. There’s no diagnostic test for depression or anxiety.
He added, “No one would feel bad calling into their work saying ‘I have a cold today,’ but no one would call in saying ‘I’m not feeling great today mentally.’ … So we’re [Nightline] trying to break that taboo.”
In terms of mental health’s role in medicine, Mr Johnstone remarked, “In A&E, you have to consider that every patient that comes in has a mental health and has a mental wellbeing, and you have to consider that as much as you consider their physical wellbeing.”
Since working with Nightline as a listening volunteer, Mr Johnstone noted that he feels the experience has “definitely” made him a better medical student, with others noting that he was more comfortable addressing darker issues, including suicidal thoughts and sexual assault, with his patients.
On what Nightline has taught him about wellbeing and his own mental health, Mr Johnstone noted that the experience taught him that he needs to self-care more, stating, “I very quickly realised that, in order to help others, I need to help myself first.”
Speaking of mental health in general, he remarked, “Everyone has a mental health. Mental health doesn’t have to have negative connotations, because you can have positive mental health, and everyone needs to realise that mental health is a very fluid state.
“You don’t have to have depression to feel depressed. You don’t have to have anxiety to feel anxious about something. Everyone worries and everyone has these dark moments, and it’s the biggest thing to realise that you should be self-caring and you should look after yourself.”
When discussing his recommendations to others on how to practise self-care, Mr Johnstone noted that there is not a “simple how-to guide” because everyone’s mental health varies, but noted that talking to others can help almost anyone.
Mr Johnstone himself stated that, during one exam season, he reached out to York University’s Nightline to talk to someone about his exam stress. He did not want to reach out to the Nightline of St Andrews because he knew the volunteers, but emphasised the way that reaching out not only can help others but helped him as well.
“Knowing where to get support and how to get support is the main thing, and knowing that you are completely okay to ask for support, and it doesn’t make you any less of a person to reach out.”
Additionally, he said, “Don’t over-work yourself. It’s so easy at university to get into so many societies [and] make so many commitments … but it is important to know your own limitations and recognise that you are just a student and you are human, and that you cannot do everything.”
On his recommendations for students, regardless of their year, he noted, “A lot of people let first year grades slip, a lot of people let second year socialising slip, a lot of people in third year let societies slip, but the one thing you can never let slip is the self care for yourself, because you are the most important person and you are the only thing that you need to take care of at University.”
When asked at the end of the interview for any final comments, Mr Johnstone leaped at the opportunity to thank the over 40 to 60 anonymous listeners who volunteer.
“They are there every single night and they are there for absolutely anything, and they deserve the biggest thanks that the University can possibly give them, because they are the unsung heroes of the University.
“They go nights without sleep and they go to lectures at 9am. They will give up nights out just to sit on the end of the phone with someone who is feeling lonely. It is such a valiant task that they do, and it’s quite under-appreciated overall … so just thank you to all our anonymous volunteers who continue to be there.”
Students can access Nightline by calling (01334 46) 22 66, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or accessing their instant messaging service.