York Nightline closure will leave ‘a significant gap in student support’ say ex-volunteers

One volunteer told The York Tab: ‘YUSU absolutely could have done more to support volunteers’

The University of York’s Students’ Union recently decided against re-ratifying York Nightline, shutting down the project. The service, which had been running on York’s campus since 1972, was part of a national volunteering project, providing a confidential student-to-student nighttime listening service. 

In their statement, YUSU said that York Nightline’s operations were suspended back in March over “concerns relating to the practical and emotional impact of the project on both our volunteers and York Nightline’s users”.

Despite efforts to respond to these concerns, YUSU said: “Trustees were uncomfortable with the project’s operating model due to the continuing welfare issues experienced by volunteers and service users” and so the decision was made not to re-ratify the project. 

Since the news broke, ex-volunteers of the York Nightline project have spoken to The York Tab about their experience with the service, as well as their concerns for the future of student support at York in the absence of the service.

‘I loved my time volunteering with Nightline, and am heartbroken it’s coming to an end’

When Psychology student Lisa* first heard that YUSU had decided not to re-ratify York Nightline, she was “inconsolable”. She started at York in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, and said she initially felt “lonely and isolated” at uni. Then she stumbled across a zoom taster session for York Nightline: “Joining that zoom was one of the first times at uni that I actually felt I belonged somewhere. I have thoroughly loved my time volunteering for Nightline”.

York Nightline had been running on campus for 51 years, and has been a large part of the university experience for many volunteers. For Beth*, who volunteered for the service for almost two years, it was “the highlight of [her] time at university.”

She said: “I loved my time volunteering with Nightline, and am heartbroken it is coming to an end… I am still in shock. I am very disappointed in YUSU, and am worried who will fill the gap now we’re gone.” Psychology student Betty* agreed, saying volunteering was “the most rewarding experience of [her] life”.

‘I’ve never seen an organisation that has so much internal support’

In their statement, YUSU said the service’s closure followed concerns surrounding “the practical and emotional impact of the project on both [their] volunteers and York Nightline’s users”. In particular, the Board of Trustees were “uncomfortable with the project’s operating model”, as volunteers were “not qualified to provide” the support needed to deal with distressing calls.

Physics student Abigail* only started volunteering for the service in February, a month before the board suspended Nightline’s operations over these concerns. In response to YUSU’s statement, she told The York Tab: “When I say there was training, there was so much! There were procedures in place to manage serious and complex calls. And there was also no pressure for you to continue a call if you ever felt uncomfortable.

“When you are on a shift, you’re ever alone and are always with someone with more experience with the service. I don’t think I have ever heard or seen an organisation that has so much internal support.”

Having volunteered for Nightline since their first year, Biology student Sam* said they think the closure is “ridiculous”.

They said: “The volunteers are capable adults, and if they feel safe and able to continue the service then this shouldn’t be a decision that’s taken away from them. The support in place for volunteers was vast, and we were encouraged to look after ourselves above all else.”

‘Instead of increasing support they’ve pressed the panic alarm’

In their statement, YUSU highlighted the “increasing complexity, sensitivity and severity of the calls that volunteers at York Nightline were dealing with”, some of which were of a “distressing or abusive nature” as a factor leading to the service’s closure.

Responding to this, Mina*, who volunteered from 2020 to 2023, told The York Tab: “When you join, you’re aware that you can get those calls, and there are protocols in place for when you do.”

She said: “We have a training weekend, where we go through all of the call types you can get, including the kind of examples of the complex and serious calls… it’s what you sign up for, you don’t go into Nightline thinking, oh every night I do a shift I’m gonna get a call and someone’s gonna say “I saw a really cute dog today”, you’re signing up to listen to someone who’s feeling isolated, who’s feeling lonely, and who feels like they have no one else to talk to.”

She said that volunteers always had the option to opt out of a shift, and that there was always support in place after a call to “say I had a shit call and I feel a bit shitty about it.”

Having highlighted that calls had become more distressing since the pandemic in their statement, Mina* criticised YUSU’s decision to close the service in response: “They chose not to add additional support and instead have taken away and dismantled support… instead of providing additional and building on it to increase the depth and wealth of support that you can offer, they’ve pressed the panic alarm.”

Ex-volunteers feel student wellbeing may not be at the heart of the decision

Having praised the depth of support available for volunteers, those that spoke to The York Tab were left unsatisfied by the explanation offered by YUSU. Abigail* said: “YUSU will say it’s relating to mental health of students, I think the issue goes deeper. Liability. Despite the fact Nightline York has been running 52 years at the university, a hypothetical fear has caused it to end. Why is the answer to asking for a union to give students more support to reduce a lifeline of support?

“YUSU stated in their final decision that if someone was to name Nightline in a negative outcome, they could basically get sued in short….I know in the statement mental health has been factored to some extent. But, in my eyes, it’s not the only reason.”

Mina* said she felt the closure may be out of “self interest”. She said that student welfare is delicate and that “the problem is the complications when it comes to what is duty of care.”

Nightline can’t be replaced by an ‘ineffective forum’

In their statement, YUSU outlined alternative sources of support still available to York students, in particular Talk Campus, a provision which offers “instant, free support” through a “trained community of students who offer peer support and listening”

It said they are “confident that Talk Campus will ensure continuity of support for University of York students, at least in the immediate future”. Ex-Nightline volunteers expressed their doubts over the effectiveness of this service to The York Tab.

Lisa* said how she doesn’t feel the service is an adequate replacement for Nightine. She said: “YUSU believes the app Talk Campus can fill the hole Nightline has left, but it is not the same… it is nothing like the student speaking to a student type of support.

“There’s no peer support from trained students and no one-on-one conversation, just one really ineffective forum.”

YUSU ‘didn’t listen’ and ‘could absolutely have done more to support volunteers’

Having been involved in York Nightline’s discussions with YUSU about the future of the service, Betty* said she felt YUSU “really did not listen to what we were trying to bring across in meetings – not only that but we talked about how Talk Campus was not a great mental health option for students and yet they continue to advertise it as a positive contribution to student wellbeing just because [the uni] have paid for it, despite the fact it is not what students want.”

She said that though calls could be difficult “YUSU could absolutely have done more to support volunteers, they just chose not to listen to what we needed.”

English and Philosophy graduate, Alice*, was a volunteer between 2013 and 2015. Having also volunteered for the Samaritans in London in 2017-18, Alice* said: “The Student Union has cited concerns about the “complex” nature of the calls, and how they should be handled by trained professionals. But they’ve signposted to the Samaritans (which is also made up exclusively of volunteers, and whose principles and ethos Nightlines around the country seek to emulate), and Talk Campus, which is an app… populated by student volunteers, from other universities. So that reasoning doesn’t seen to hold up.”

The closure will leave a ‘significant gap in student support’

Ex-volunteers stressed the differences between the in-person service Nightline offered and that provided by an online forum such as Talk Campus.

Sam* told The York Tab that the closing of Nightline will leave “a significant gap in student support.”

They said: “People call Nightline for a reason, because they need that type of support. Now that it’s gone where will they go? There are no other night time listening centres in the area, and nowhere offers the same level of local and student-focused support.”

Charlie* graduated from York in 2013, where their experience volunteering for Nightline was pivotal in their decision to pursue further study and a career working in mental health services. They said the increasingly challenging nature of calls “should prompt YUSU to ask why students are choosing to turn to a peer run listening service rather than other services” because “this demonstrates the value of peer support.” 

They said: “It is a shame that students have lost one of the only spaces in which they may be heard and understood. Where they don’t have to sit on a horrifying long waiting list to talk to someone.”

A spokesperson for The University of York’s Students’ Union has said: “The decision to close York Nightline is not one that has been taken quickly or lightly. The project has played a special role in the University of York community that has been much valued, and we know that the news of the closure will come as a disappointment to volunteers.

“As I have stated already in my full statement on the YUSU website, this decision has been taken in response to concerns about the increasing complexity, sensitivity and severity of the calls that volunteers at York Nightline were dealing with, including calls of a distressing or abusive nature, and the impact of this on both York Nightline volunteers and on callers into the service.

“As a Union, we want to ensure that every student in need has access to the right support.  Whilst we recognise that York Nightline has played a hugely important role in its time in operation, trustees felt that students in need may ultimately be better served elsewhere by a service that is supported by professional and clinical support frameworks. There are various external services that operate in this way, and there has also been extensive investment in professional and clinically-supported services on campus in recent years to meet the changing needs and demands of our student body. Full information on these services can be found in the full statement I have already provided on the closure.”

* Names have been changed to protect volunteers’ privacy 

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