Anxiety and stress are as common as the next thing when your life takes off as a university student. The process of immersing oneself in a completely new stage of life can, for many students, exacerbate the loneliness of living away from home for the first time and aside from everything else, it can be a daunting and solitary task. Sometimes seeking out professional help feels a bit extreme and other times talking about negative emotions with friends and acquaintances doesn’t feel like much of an option either.
For this reason, finding and creating safe spaces within and outside university has become more common as people transition from the secure feeling of being at home to the rather unnerving idea of moving towards the adult world. A comprehensive attitude towards mental health and the power of talking about one’s emotions becomes increasingly important as we move forward and as society’s attitudes towards a holistic conception of well-being are developed further.
One can easily see that St Andrews Nightline has made an effort in line with these values for the myriad of students that employ their services year round. Their presence on campus is recognised, respected, and renowned amongst students as they encourage the idea of an earnest, open, and comprehensive conversation about mental health issues between individuals who are going through anything they feel the need to discuss in a time of need.
As a new semester begins and applications to volunteer have opened up, talking about the service is particularly relevant. Nightline functions completely anonymously, allowing students to reach out through multiple means of contact – phone calls, email, instant messaging on their website, as well as Skype Audio, their newest addition. They describe themselves as a “student-run confidential, anonymous listening and information service” that runs from 8 pm to 7 am. For those hoping to use the website, they can reach out through any of the forms available, knowing that no information they discuss will be divulged afterwards.
They make it clear that there is nothing of too little importance for them to listen to, calling their service entirely non judgemental. Additionally, the promise of anonymity comes with a responsibility from volunteers to work discreetly, which mainly entails not providing details to anyone about their role in the service itself.
If applying, it is asked that you do not divulge information about this. If you get an interview, you are not meant to tell anyone where you are going and what information is revealed to you at the interview. If you do end up going through the selective application process, this discretion is continued until you either move on, or become a public face within the St Andrews branch.
There are only five public faces in the group, a position taken after having a part in the organisation for some time. These public faces cease to be anonymous listeners and take on other managerial duties instead. The process of becoming a public face involves being elected to the roles by members of the organization. It was announced on Nightline’s Facebook page on January 30th who this team of public faces will be for the remainder of 2020. Third year Tom Conti Leslie was announced as director of the branch, with Angus Sandison as Deputy Director, Ben McAuley as Training and Recruitment Officer, and Emma Craig and Finlay Langham as Publicity Officers.
I was able to correspond with and receive information from the team’s publicity officers about what the inner workings of Nightline consist of. In discussing their obligations, they elaborated, “Our main responsibility is to represent the organisation to the public. As publicity officers we also work to raise awareness; it’s pretty hard to be a listening organisation if no one knows you’re there for them to talk to! We also make ourselves accessible to the public to answer any questions people might have.”
Volunteers work on a series of shifts that run throughout the week. They state that “On any night that halls are open there are two Nightline volunteers of different gender identities who have signed up to do that shift, and are ready to listen on phone, IM, and email,” making the service readily available to everyone.
Above all else Nightline looks to keep the volunteers that work for them not feel overburdened with their duties, to keep those giving and seeking help mentally healthy and happy with the service. The central mission of their group they describe as an “aim to provide an empathetic listening ear to people when they feel like they need a sounding board for their thoughts and feelings, regardless of the subject.”
As an “active listening and information service” they “offer a safe space for people to talk about anything they need to, without fear of being identified, judged, or lectured to.” All volunteers operate under similar ideas regarding confidentiality, of which keeping their identity discrete is an essential part. They state that their service operates under overarching values, or as they call them, the “four principles of anonymity,” which are: confidentiality; non-judgement; non-directivity; and empathy.
“Anonymity is essential to the way we operate because often when people contact Nightline, they want to talk about something which they would rather not discuss with someone they know,” they elaborated. “We want to ensure any potential callers feel fully comfortable contacting us, which necessarily means full anonymity of the voice on the other side of the phone (/email/IM). Our anonymity policy goes both ways so callers don’t have to worry about being identified.”
In addition to listening to people talk about whatever they feel that they need to, Nightline hopes to “provide the most useful information when asked for it” as another one of their central aims, and by being both comprehensive and informative, gaining status as being the most helpful individuals they can be. They affirm they “also ensure our listening volunteers have access to plenty of information about the University and the town, so we can help with anything from figuring out how to access exam timetables to finding the number of a reliable taxi company.”
Nightline not only facilitates conversation surrounding mental health but works as a place where people can ask questions they might feel too embarrassed to otherwise ask, constructing a safe space that many students look for at some point in their university careers. Overall, they added, “We hope that our service will improve the university experience for St Andrews students as they know there will always be someone they can talk to,” that is to say by making efforts every year to work toward reaching as much of the student body as they can through a variety of methods.
Their duties are not limited to their night time services, but also in expanding their presence and values through social media posts, lecture shout outs, giveaways, exam packs, Nightline Awareness Week, and many other efforts. Aside from all of this publicity officer Ms Langham adds, “We are always looking for ways to improve the work we do to accomplish this more fully,” and that though their work has not gone unnoticed, that they hope to continue making a non judgemental environment fully accessible to the students at the University, achieving more strides in the direction of their mission into their general agenda.
When asked why they believe Nightline to be so essential to life at St Andrews, the publicity officers answered that “Organisations like Nightline are especially important to students because, for many, this will be the first time they have lived away from home and away from the support networks they are used to. Nightline can help ease this transition by helping people find new resources and places to get any support they need, as well as just being a space in which people can honestly talk about how they’re finding university without any fear of being judged for their feelings. Additionally, university can be a stressful time for many; students may be struggling with their coursework, exams, making friends, and more. We hope that we are able to help alleviate such stress by lending a listening ear and acting as a sounding board for ideas of how to cope.”
As of now, the amount of volunteers working at the St Andrews branch is less than 100, but in my correspondence with the team, they added that, “If you would like to get involved, the first stage is to send in an application. The form can be found on the ‘Get Involved’ section of our website and then submitted to our admin email. There is then a period of consideration before training for successful applicants. We always encourage applicants who are not accepted on their first attempt to reapply; the recruitment process is very competitive and the amount of volunteers we are able to accept varies each semester. Many of our volunteers were accepted on their second or third application.”
Options are also available to those who would like to participate in the Nightline mission without becoming anonymous listeners and are given the option to join their publicity team, which is a group of non-listening volunteers who help with publicity projects such as decorating and filling packs with treats around stressful times like exam season.
When I asked what the experience of being a volunteer is like, I received answers from both publicity officers Ms Langham and Ms Craig. Ms Langham described her volunteering experience as “extremely rewarding! Personally, I think it’s the best thing I’ve been a part of at university. As a volunteer you really get to see the positive impact of what you do, which is an incredible feeling. There is a bit of a time commitment involved which can be tricky, not to mention a bit of a sleep deficit after a shift, but it’s always worth it!”
Ms Craig discusses the difficulties of being a volunteer mainly lying in maintaining her anonymity, having “really enjoyed volunteering for Nightline, and found it very rewarding, and that excitement is naturally something I want to share with my close friends. But it is really important to the integrity of the service we offer for the identities of all volunteers to remain anonymous. That is one of the reasons I am so excited to be a Public Face now; I can share my passion for the organisation with my friends and with the community.” If seeking to reach out to Nightline, you can by going on their website to chat through IM, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and the number to dial is 01334 46(2266), and if in halls, use the extension 22 66