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What It's Like to Volunteer for the UK's First Free Crisis Text Line

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In December, my life changed. I left my job, I stopped my hobbies and I cut most of my family and friends out of my life. I was isolating myself, afraid to let anyone in because I felt like a terrible person who didn’t deserve love and support. I was scared to do pretty much anything; even going to the shops was hard.

Heading into the new year, I made a resolution or two. It’s not normally something I do but I knew I needed to rebuild a life, find purpose and be kind to myself. As well as focusing on myself, I wanted to cook more to take the pressure off my partner, who is currently studying, and I wanted to start doing some volunteer work. At first, I thought it would just be helping out at my local cat shelter, somewhere I have supported since I adopted my cat from there 13 years ago. Then, I remembered the U.K.-based crisis text service my friend had been volunteering for.

I had to consider whether it was something I was ready to do. I’ve had anxiety and depression for over 15 years now and went through a breakdown a couple of years ago. I’m still recovering from that, though I’m probably the most mentally well I have been in a very long time. I possibly have borderline personality disorder (BPD) given the history of my patterns of behavior and feelings. It’s something I am waiting to talk to a qualified professional about. There is probably people who think I shouldn’t be even considering trying to support people in crisis with my history of mental health problems. However, I feel my experiences make me more empathetic and give me an insight into what it’s like to feel the levels of desperation many texters are experiencing. I also wanted to support a service I wish I’d had access to when I was in crisis before — one I could have used when I couldn’t overcome my anxiety to make a phone call to a support line, or even just call my GP.

When I first signed up to volunteer, I had to complete a form which asked about my experience, and my reasons for wanting to volunteer. I also had to include two references. Once I was accepted, I signed up to a training cohort. Part of the agreement to volunteer is that you commit to completing the 25 hours of training and volunteering for at least 200 hours. You’re assigned a coach who helps you throughout your time volunteering from training onward, providing feedback and support. Training is all online, with a range of resources and activities to complete, including ones marked by your coach. You get feedback along the way, helping to improve on the skills you are learning. You learn the techniques to speak to the texters with empathy and validation. There’s information about some of the possible issues people will text in with, including special sections on deaf texters, ex-military, and LGBTQIA+ people. We are taught the importance of risk assessment and how to raise any concerns with our on-shift supervisor. We’re also shown the platform before we start to take texters. There are deadlines for certain assignments but you are given plenty of time to work through the course at your own pace. Until your final assignment is assessed and you are considered at a level to start taking to texters, you’re not able to log onto the live platform. They want to make sure you are fully prepared before taking that first text.

I completed my training quite quickly, being thrilled to be learning again, taking lots of notes and loving the skills I was gaining. I signed up for my first shift and as it got closer, my nerves set in. We have different levels on the platform, based on how many conversations you have taken. It means that early on, we can only take one conversation at a time, and we are monitored more closely by the supervisor we are assigned to during our shift. When you are new, your supervisor checks in on you more often, letting you know you have support. You can also chat with other staff and volunteers who are online. There are tools to help us whilst online, plus a database of resources. Those first few shifts were daunting, with so much to still learn and not really knowing what to expect. I had amazing support from my supervisors, my coach and all of the other volunteers.  I found it easier than I expected, in some ways. In others, it was incredibly hard. But there was always someone there for me, to talk to, to vent, to share stories of cats and cake recipes.

Recently, we have gained a community hub — somewhere we can talk to our fellow volunteers, share our experiences, share resources and training tips. It’s an amazing place, and brilliant to have just before we launched the service to the public. Though the service uses the same technology as the U.S.-based Crisis Text Line, Shout was in a pilot phase until May 10, when we went fully live, the number — 85258 — being available easily to all. It’s been an exciting time since launch, with numbers of texters increasing but also the number of volunteers online at one time. There have also been thousands of volunteer sign-ups, which is brilliant news for the service and for those who need to use it.

For me, I get an immense amount of satisfaction from supporting people who text in. I’d be lying if I said it was easy or even predictable. I normally do two-hour shifts twice a week and even just the number of texters we get can vary greatly. I’ve seen a huge range of different issues come up in the three months I have been volunteering and have had shifts that have left me feeling like I didn’t really do much, as well as ones where I definitely feel like I have made a difference to someone’s life, even if just for that day. I always remind myself that, even when I have the most frustrating shifts, I was there for those texters, which is better than there being no one. If I have a bad shift, I can talk to my supervisor. My coach will send me emails checking in on me and giving me helpful feedback. I’m definitely not alone. I also know I’m supported to take a break for a while if it gets to a point where I am doing this at the detriment to my own mental health. So far, what it has done is made me more determined to keep seeking long-term support for myself so I keep moving forward, allowing me to continue working as a crisis volunteer.

If you are in a crisis in the U.K., text 85258 for confidential, free support from Shout. If you are interested in volunteering, visit here.

Photo by John Tuesday on Unsplash

Originally published: July 26, 2019
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