University can be an incredibly challenging time for a young person. You are moving out of home into completely new surroundings. You are surrounded by entirely different people who may act, think, and live differently to you. The familiarities of your childhood disappear and are replaced with the harsh reality of adult-hood and work. For some, an uncertainty can arise about their place in the world and whether all those years of studying through secondary school were worth it. It has become a crisis of our time: the mental well-being of young people. But attitudes and actions are changing. Slowly but surely, the “stiff upper lip” mentality is being challenged. One way in which that is being done is by the emergence of charities that focus on dialogue and openness towards mental health issues.
Nightline is one of these charities. It is an anonymous listening service that allows people to email, message, or phone in and just talk about what-ever is on their mind. St Andrews has its very own branch, with its phone number on the back of every single matriculation card. Nightline can appear to be an incredibly secret operation. Only five people are allowed to say they are a part of the organisation while they still work for it. These people are known as the “public faces”. They are not an anonymous listener but help to run the St Andrews branch. One of these people is Miriam Eyre, a fourth-year English and Spanish student from York. She has been one of those anonymous listeners since her first year. Now in her role as a publicity officer for the branch, she can openly say she works for Nightline. She sat down with The Saint to talk about life as an anonymous listener and about a new feature for the service.
Ms Eyre talked about the technicalities of being an anonymous listener. “There’s two of us on shift every night of different genders. We answer calls, instant messages, and emails. We work from 8 pm to 7 am the next morning.
“We usually say volunteers should do one shift every two to three weeks, so not every night at all. We take volunteer welfare very seriously as well as the welfare of students who we are trying to help. What’s important for keeping people happy and healthy is that they don’t overburden themselves.”
The process of being anonymous is taken incredibly seriously. Ms Eyre said, “from the moment that you ap-ply, we ask that you don’t tell anyone about the fact that you have applied. If you get an interview, we say to them don’t tell people where you are going, don’t tell people you are coming for your interview, don’t tell them what you saw in the interview. If you get in that continues. You are anonymous from the moment that you ap-ply to forever or you become a public face and you are allowed to say that you have done it in the past.”
These precautions are taken for a reason said Ms Eyre. “St Andrews is a very small place and the service is a confidential listening service and its advertised as being anonymous. People would be less likely to call if they knew who was on the other end of the line. They would feel more se-cure in the fact that the information that they tell people is kept confidential and secure. So we think it’s really important because it means when you call you just have a faceless voice at the end of the phone and that is no-body to you.”
Given that Ms Eyre herself has now become a public face, she is one of the few people who is able to talk about working with Nightline. The decision to become a public figure was not taken lightly. She said, “I just decided that I care a lot about the organisation. The nature of the organisation is that once you are in it you can’t tell anyone about it, you have to be very careful about how you talk about it. You can’t tell your friend for example ‘you seem like you’re struggling, why don’t you call nightline?’ Because we are very strict about the fact that you have to keep it very secret.
“It is quite a frustrating pro-cess occasion-ally because I care so much about it but I could never tell anyone about it. I re-ally felt like this was the time where I could step back from doing the actual work and promote the fact that it’s a fantastic organisation and people should take the opportunity to use it whenever they can.
“I guess I just wanted to really be able to promote it and to represent all the people that I know through [Nightline] but I’m not officially al-lowed to know. There’s someone doing it every single day which is amazing; all through exams, we keep it going all through spring break. There are people in the University who are that selfless that they will give their night through exams and revision when they could be at home revising! There are some really wonderful, selfless people at the University. It’s really nice to be the public face for that and to represent that organisation because it’s a great thing and it’s a service people do and should use as much as they can because we have these really well-trained volunteers that have given up their time. It’s a great service.
Ms Eyre’s passion for Nightline started from her very first week in university, when she went up to their stall at Freshers’ Fayre. She said, “I just value open emotional conversation and I think it’s really important that people do have the opportunity to have a listening ear and someone that they can speak to about some-thing if it’s bothering them.
“I think quite often people don’t know how to handle situations where their friends are in a bad way. They kind of freak out, they don’t know what to do. People at university really do struggle a lot and mental health is such a big issue. We’ve probably all heard of someone com-mitting suicide while we’ve been at university for various reasons.
“I just think it’s a really important service. If you are on your own at night and you’re feeling really really terrible, or even if you are not feeling really terrible, you just feel like you want to speak to somebody, there is somebody there that you can speak to, every night there is someone.
“You don’t have to feel like you are on your own because you actually never are because there is always someone there. These people want to do it; they’ve given up their time to do it. I think we are really lucky that we do have it. Night time is a horrible time if you are not feeling great, if you’ve got something bothering you. It’s always at night that it becomes the worst time because generally your friends aren’t around you, you don’t have class to go to where someone might notice that you’re not looking great and might flag it up. There are no Student Services, you can’t go for a counselling appointment in the middle of the night. We are always there. I just think it’s a fantastic service and I just really wanted to support it.”
Continuing, Ms Eyre said, “It’s special when we are in the University because it is run by students for students. It’s not the same as going for an appointment with Student Services because if you go to Student Services you have a trained, adult counsellor. We are all trained and all adult. It is different because we are in the same situation that the callers are in, which is quite a special thing because it means we do have a perspective on things that are happening like a counsellor in Students Services wouldn’t have.
“It’s special as well because it means within St Andrews that there are this group of people who are trained and actively listening. We are also trying to reach out more to other people who aren’t necessarily wanting to be a volunteer.
“Active listening is a really important thing to know how to do. You might know a nightline volunteer and maybe they help you in your day-to-day life. You would never know but maybe sometimes you might have a really good conversation with some-body when you are feeling down and say ‘wow that person has listened to me so well’ and it’s because perhaps they might do it.”
Nightline is clearly an extremely valuable service that offers people a soundboard to voice their doubts and thoughts. It also heavily impacts the people who work for the charity, as Ms Eyre said, “I’m better at dealing with situations when people come to me with problems.”
“It’s purely about listening, it’s not about giving your own advice, it’s not about giving your own personal experiences, an anecdote to your friend who’s struggling saying ‘I knew somebody who was once in that situation’. That’s not what it’s about. It’s literally just about listening. It’s about asking people questions so that they talk more, it’s about showing that you care just by maintaining the conversation and showing that you are interested and that you care. I think that’s beneficial. It’s been really important in the way that I’ve dealt with issues in my friendship group and my family.
“It’s been a privilege to be able to be that person that has been able to be there for people in the middle of the night. I feel lucky that I’ve been able to help people in that way. Also, the chance to meet so many fantastic people who want to do exactly the same thing and care so much. It’s a lovely group of people, sadly I’m not allowed to be friends with them publicly, but they are fantastic.
When asked about how her time as an anonymous listener impacted her day-to-day life, Ms Eyre said, “It gives you a perspective into life at university that perhaps other people don’t have. Maybe as a volunteer you’ve come across calls that have highlight-ed certain situations that maybe you didn’t know. I suppose it gives you an insight into the real issues that are happening, the real problems that people do have.”
As well as representing her fellow volunteers, Ms Eyre was keen to stress that Nightline can now be voice called over Skype. She said, “It means you can call over the internet without your phone, so you don’t have to have credit.
“You can call from abroad if you are on your year abroad for example or home over spring break because we are open all through spring break, or if you went home for revision, you can call us over Skype.
“It anonymises your name, we still have no idea who’s calling. It’s essentially the exact same as calling us from your phone but it just means that its free.”
Nightline can respond to calls and messages between 8 pm and 7 am during term time. The number to dial is 01334 46(2266). If you wish to volunteer for Nightline, the organisation will be opening applications in September.