Food and Drink's Harriet Laban discusses how healthy comfort eating is for your mental healthWritten by Harriet Laban on 17th December 2018
Birmingham Nightline: Everything You Need to Know
In the lead-up to Nightline Awareness Week 2018, Luke Wheeler examines the mission statement of a service close to the hearts of students across the city
‘Nightline’ is a name that gets bandied around in conversations, with the University and the Guild both signposting students to it, but the group themselves remain somewhat tucked away and elusive. As part of National Nightline Awareness Week 2018 I have been asked to write about the service, exploring why it is needed, how they offer the service and what they have planned for Awareness Week.
What is Nightline? This is a question the organisation gets asked often at volunteering stands or when they hand out leaflets, but the answer is fairly simple: Nightline is a confidential, non-judgemental and non-advisory listening and information service run by students for students at UoB, Aston and UCB, with the aim of remaining open every night of term from 6pm until 8am. You can contact Nightline in a variety of ways – over the phone, via instant messenger, email or even face-to-face drop-in, and you can find even more contact information at the bottom of this article. You can talk to them about anything you want, whether you want to rant about how your day was, ask how to contact your welfare tutor, or talk about something deeper and more existential – that’s all fine by them.
But why a night line? Well, in 2013 research from Youthsight showed that 32% of students exhibited distress at night, therefore Nightline seeks to fill the gap left when people are feeling vulnerable but university and public services are closed. What’s more, the same Youthsight research showed that students prefer a peer-to-peer service, which makes sense: talking to a fellow student means they are more likely to appreciate the intricacies and stresses of student life, as well as understanding how your university works. That is why Nightline volunteers complete fourteen hour shifts most nights of term, to be there for their peers when others might not be.
It’s interesting how powerful a listening ear can be. I know that when my friends talk to me I become a problem solver, I see it as a duty to try and help them find a solution. However, more often than not it is actually harder to just stop and listen, to pay attention to what they are saying and just allow that person to be heard. For this reason, Nightline focuses on active listening rather than advice giving, as more often than not this is more effective and, given that their volunteers are students giving up their free time, training them in how to give advice is arguably untenable.
How people engage with Nightline is an interesting question, and their annual statistics report shed light on some of the inner workings of the service. As a confidential service, Nightline does not record specifics of what people discuss with them, but they do record themes in order to help inform their training as well as to better inform their stakeholders on how the service is used. I have chosen a few statistics (below) that I think highlight some interesting points.
As students, we all know that the specific stresses and strains we experience are dependent on the context of our degree as well as our personal lives and this can change from term to term, and I find it interesting how this is reflected in Nightline’s own statistics. For instance, the graphs below show how academic stress peaks as a contact theme in summer term during exam period, but low mood and unhappiness peaks in winter term, when freshers first start university, older students return from home and winter draws out and darkens the days. What’s more, the graphs clearly demonstrate the diverse range of themes that Nightline’s volunteers deal with over the course of the year, and the termly trends are quite closely tied to changes in students’ circumstances as the year progresses. They also demonstrate how Nightline really is there to talk about whatever is on your mind; it’s one thing to say ‘you can talk us about anything’, but it’s different and surprisingly powerful to show that people really do open up to the service and discuss whatever is on their minds.
More holistically, the question of how to approach student mental health and wellbeing has been a source of much controversy at UoB, instigated in part by the closure of counselling services at the end of first term last year, as well as the increased use of Facebook pages such as ‘Old Joemance’ and ‘Brumfess’ as platforms for people to discuss their mental health issues. Whilst student mental health and wellbeing is not, nor should it be, Nightline’s responsibility, current circumstances mean that they are seeking to spread knowledge of the service to as many people as possible, especially as they offer an approach independent of the University and the Guild. Nightline want to ensure that people know that they are there for them if they ever need someone to talk to, hence why they have so much planned for National Awareness Week this year.
The service itself has also faced controversy regarding its closure rate over the last month, for which they have cited ‘lower than usual’ volunteer numbers as the cause. However, Nightline have given assurance that with their recently completed training intake they have gained over 20 new volunteers, and are looking to do just as well in their term 2 intake. Hopefully this means there are fewer closures in the future.
Nightline is a national association that covers over 40 Universities in the UK and Republic of Ireland, and each year the National Association decides a theme that Nightlines across the two countries can build their awareness events around.
This year, Awareness Week runs from the 19th to the 25th of November and its theme is ‘Be Heard’. Subsequently, Birmingham Nightline has a diverse slate of events in the works – these include, but are not limited to, a debate on the motion that ‘British society allows for the open expression of people’s struggles with mental health;’ a joint event with Aston Student Minds at the Aston University Student Union; an awareness stand at University College Birmingham; a spoken word event ‘Let’s Talk’ as well as a tag writing activity based on self-care as part of Xxplosion with Digbeth Dining Club themed prizes up for grabs.
This diverse set of events goes to show how keen Nightline are to promote themselves to as diverse a cross section of the student population as possible. An ambitious undertaking, but understandable given that they cover such a large and diverse student population.
‘Be Heard’ is an open-ended theme, but it cuts right to the heart of how student attitudes to mental health and wellbeing are changing. More people are willing to speak up and out, whether it’s to tackle the inadequacies of mental health provision, open up about their personal struggles or the discuss the experiences of those close to them.
Speaking out tackles stigma, it opens up conversation and debate, it allows people to empathise with your situation and better understand you. ‘Be Heard’ therefore becomes more than a theme, it becomes something of a mantra – be heard, and you can institute change.
If you want to keep up with Nightline’s Awareness Week Events, make sure to follow their social media. If you want to know more about the service and find out how to volunteer, go to their website. If you want to contact the service, their number is on the back of student ID cards and all their contact information is available through the my.bham, Aston SU and UCB Guild portals.