By Lily Roberts, NHS Digital Academy Teaching Fellow
“I’m really struggling, is someone there?”
“Hi there, my name is Sophie and I’m here for you tonight. Tell me a bit about what’s on your mind.”
“I can’t cope anymore, I just want to end it all…”
While this exchange is fictional, it is a representation of a very real problem.
As a volunteer for Shout, a recently launched mental health crisis text line, this is the kind of conversation I’m trained to undertake, in the hope that the texter and I can work together to find a calmer place. And with 40% of conversations on Shout relating to suicide, there is clearly a major need for services like this to exist.
That’s why the Institute of Global Health Innovation is working with Shout to not only improve the service itself, but to develop more digital tools like this so that more people can access the help they need.
A friendly voice – anytime, anywhere
I began volunteering for the digital charity Mental Health Innovations (MHI) in July 2018. I’d reached a stage in my life when I felt I wanted to offer some time each week to help others. Through an Imperial link I heard about Shout, the text line MHI had set up in the UK following success in the US, to address growing mental health needs.
The service offers free 24/7 access to trained volunteers to anyone experiencing a moment of crisis, which could involve anything from being kicked out of home to having a relapse in self-harm. At this point, Shout was in its infancy in the UK and was a well-kept secret among a few charities while the pool of volunteers grew.
Up until this point I didn’t fancy myself as someone able to provide support in a mental health crisis; I hadn’t known how to calm my sister down after a laundry mishap dyed all of her clothes blue. How was I meant to address the issue of suicide? Assured that I would be supported along the way, and that the minimum commitment per week was only two hours, I sent the email expressing my interest.
Building skills for life
Following application forms and reference checks, I was directed to an online platform where I was to undertake approximately 25 hours of training in order to qualify to take conversations with texters. The training, which I managed to complete within a couple of weeks, not only qualified me as a Crisis Volunteer, but also as someone who knows what to say when a friend or family member is in need. I learned how to transfer a texter from a ‘hot moment to a cool, calm moment’, for example by helping them identify their strengths and using empathetic and non-judgemental statements.
Prior to my first conversation on the platform I felt nervous, with a huge cup of tea and my notes printed out beside me.
I soon realised there was nothing to worry about; supervisors, often professional psychiatrists or psychologists, are online day and night, keeping an eye on your conversations so that they can be there for support when you’re feeling stuck. They’re always happy to offer suggestions when you don’t know what you could say next to a texter, or you’re unsure of which particular signpost to offer them. They may also give personalised feedback on how you handled a particular conversation so that you can grow and also feel good about how you’ve done.
Taking care of your own mental health
Volunteers’ mental health is also of paramount importance to the team at MHI. A post-conversation survey will ask whether you’re feeling :), :|, or :(, and the supervisors are there to have a debrief if you’re feeling especially affected by a particular conversation. After a shift, you’re encouraged to indulge in self-care, whether it’s a brisk walk, a cup of tea, or a soak in the bath. To be able to be in a place where we can support others, we need to support ourselves.
With around 1000 active mental health Crisis Volunteers in the UK, Shout was able to officially launch last week on 10th May. Find out more about becoming a mental health Crisis Volunteer at www.giveusashout.org.
Lily Roberts is an NHS Digital Academy Teaching Fellow at the Institute of Global Health Innovation, which has recently partnered with MHI. You can find out more about the partnership and what it hopes to achieve for mental health here.