‘It feels good to give back’: What it’s like to volunteer with Cambridge Nightline

Cambridge Nightline is a student-run night-time service for students at Cambridge and ARU

CN: Discussion of mental health challenges and emotional difficulty concerning the Coronavirus pandemic. 

You’ve probably heard of Nightline – either you’ve seen our stickers in college toilets, faculty buildings and even formerly in Cindies (for the perceptive and not too drunk to notice among you) – or you’ve seen our cute owl-themed Facebook ads or staple adverts on welfare resource lists.

You might even have called us before, maybe during an essay crisis, or in the midst of something more serious. Nightline volunteers are trained to talk through the most difficult circumstances with callers but equally, you can contact us if you’re just having a bit of a bad day and want a chat. 

In case you don’t know – Nightline is an anonymous night-time listening service run by students, for students. With the announcement that Lent term would be moved online, we’re downgrading to an instant messaging service, which is open every night of term from 7 pm-12 am. You can access our services, here

Our volunteers remain anonymous for their protection. When you phone in, you won’t know the identity of the person you’re speaking to and they won’t know yours. The service is entirely confidential.

Cambridge Nightline has been around for years, working to provide impartial support to Cambridge and ARU students. But have you ever wondered what it’s actually like to be the one receiving these calls? Because of the pandemic, life as a Nightline volunteer has had to change as access to offices has become restricted.

We spoke to some of our anonymous volunteers and collated their experiences to give you an exclusive look at what it’s really like being on the other end of the phone:

It’s hard to be impartial

Two of Nightline’s principles are “non-judgement” and “non-directivity” – which means we can’t give any advice. This is because we believe that we can never know the situation of the caller well enough to advise them on their best options, and so the most useful thing we can do for them is to listen.

As one volunteer said: “training was really interesting, if slightly frustrating. As a non-directive, non-judgemental service, you can’t act as you would with your best friend, giving them advice or telling them not to worry because they did the right thing. I ended up having to accept that the best way to help someone is to listen to them rather than try and fix their problems.

“Don’t worry though, just because we follow these rules doesn’t mean we’re bland call centre drones, every volunteer has their own personality!”

It can be emotionally intense, but it’s rewarding

Sometimes calls can be a lot to handle. One volunteer said that “some of the calls do stay with you, especially if they’re really serious. But the other volunteers are really supportive, and you can always pass a call on to someone else if you really don’t think you can handle it.”  

Luckily, the lows are balanced by the highs: “There are moments of sympathy, sadness and sorrow but there are also moments of satisfaction, relief and overwhelming joy. There is a great deal of responsibility that goes into being a Nightline volunteer but I think we do our name proud.

“Every time I pick up the phone on a shift or speak to someone on our instant messaging service, I feel proud to tell people they’re through to a Nightline volunteer and often will end a shift feeling pretty chuffed. Having a caller thank you or feel like you’ve helped them in any way might just be one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever felt.

“I think that Nightline is potentially one of the most selfless organisations out there and I feel so lucky to be part of it.”

Shifts are usually quite relaxed

“Shifts are quieter than you’d expect”, said one volunteer. “If anyone is wondering whether to call or message I’d say go for it, as a lot of our time is spent waiting for the next call (I’m either chatting to other volunteers or procrastinating work by doodling in our office drawings book).”

Another said: “We’re not forced to stay up the whole night long – there are thankfully beds in the office. In the early hours, I’ll work, or read, or game, and in the late hours, I’ll try and sleep. If it’s an especially quiet night, it sometimes feels like a sleepover, with lots and lots of tea!” It’s worth mentioning that the Nightline kettle, tea supply and snacks shelves are probably the most-loved part of our office for volunteers. 

It’s a great way to escape from the grind of work and give something back

One grad student said that: “While working on a PhD, it’s easy to fall into tunnel vision, focusing on one project to the exclusion of all else in life. Volunteering with Nightline is a constant reminder to assess my priorities – what am I really finding fulfilling? Having the opportunity to flexibly volunteer some of my time to do something meaningful is a special thing.”

The pandemic has changed the way we have to operate

Now that Nightline’s service has been reduced, our volunteers have had to adjust to the way things work. One student shared that “volunteering for Nightline during the pandemic has been particularly challenging. You only have to look at Camfess to see how many students are suffering with their mental health in lockdown, and yet when it feels like we’re needed more than ever, it’s frustrating that we can’t be there for people in our full capacity.

“We have done everything we can to try and be able to support students this past year – from setting up an email service last Easter term and over the summer vacation, to returning to our office (with covid precautions in place) last term. Now, we’re operating our instant messaging service remotely for reduced hours. Yet despite our efforts, none of it really feels like enough, given the current state of things.”

Nightline volunteers are a community

Despite the ongoing challenges, our volunteers are always comforted by the knowledge that they’re not alone in what they do. And actually, we’re all really good friends.

One student said: “Everyone here is genuinely lovely, and I’ve made some good friends (some of whom I’ve later been reintroduced to by oblivious friends and had to pretend not to know).” Another volunteer said that “since it’s Nightline, everyone is really nice and understanding – and we care just as much about our own volunteers’ mental health as the wider student community’s.”

For some of us, the best part about doing Nightline is developing secret friendships with people across the university. As one volunteer puts it: “I love spotting other volunteers when I’m just going about life during term. We always make eye contact and have this unseen acknowledgment that nobody else notices. It often feels like we’re the MI6 of Cambridge, which can be a lot of fun! Your closest mate could be a volunteer, and you might be completely unaware of it…”

Some volunteers have struggled with mental health themselves

Some of our volunteers first encountered Nightline when they called the helpline themselves. One student shared that: “I have suffered from anxiety and depression for about six years now. When I feel like the world is closing in on me and my support systems are collapsing it can be pretty terrifying and can leave me out of action for days. This happened to me during first year and I didn’t know what to do.”

“I still don’t know why I chose to phone Nightline but I did, and it was the best thing I ever did. Nightline provided me with a soundboard that I’d never had before – a place where I could just say what I felt and I knew that it wouldn’t affect a relationship because I didn’t have any sort of relationship with the volunteer beyond this phone call.

“It really took a weight off my shoulders that night and from then I always recommend people to Nightline if they feel they don’t know where to turn. Often we have the answers deep within ourselves but don’t know how to find them. Nightline helps guide people to those answers.

“I decided that the following year I was going to volunteer because I wanted to help others in the same way I was helped in first year. Being a part of the Nightline team has become such a big part of my life.”

Overall, it’s an amazing experience

“Volunteering with Nightline has without a doubt been one of the best things I’ve done at university,” said a student volunteer. “Cambridge is a hard place, and it can be overwhelming sometimes. To speak to people dealing with so many different things, and to sometimes see myself reflected in their experiences, is reaffirming and fulfilling.”

“The association has helped me through a lot, and it’s been an amazing thing to commit to. Everyone struggles at times, and sometimes we all need someone to listen. I’m so proud of all of the volunteers, especially for how hard they’ve worked over the past term, and every time I answer a call or instant message, I feel really proud of the person on the other end of the line for reaching out.

“It’s so reassuring that there are people feeling the same way as you, and that there are others there to listen and talk through your problems. I can’t recommend contacting Nightline enough. It’s such an understanding environment to talk through how you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing without judgement.”

Nightline is open every night in Lent term from 7 pm-12 am via instant messaging at cambridge.nightline.ac.uk. We are also now recruiting for new volunteers, so if you’re interested in volunteering with us, apply here by the 9th of Feb.

All image credits to Cambridge Nightline. 

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