I recently started volunteering for a new service that is being piloted in the UK. It’s a crisis text service, which allows anyone in crisis to express their distress and be supported, soothed from distress to calm, and given resources to try. The service has already operated very successfully in the USA. My motivations for getting involved were multi-factorial: I wanted to learn some new skills, and the training they provide is impressive. I’ve become aware that we have an emerging and increasing crisis of distress, anxiety, depression, and self-harming amongst children, teenagers and adults in the UK. I have young children myself, and I want to be able to better support them if they find themselves or their friends in distress. I know that I can’t always protect them from life’s challenges, but if I develop my listening skills, I can at least support them well. I also want to give something back to the community – I currently coach women privately, and I’m conscious that not everyone is in a position to access coaching when they need it. By developing my skills as a crisis counsellor I can donate my time to someone in need, which helps me feel better about charging for my services the rest of the time. I have also read a lot of research in the past few years, about kindness and community, and I know that by giving, I am also receiving a tremendous amount.
I thought I’d share a bit about the service here, which is not yet rolled out around the country, but which is actively recruiting for more counsellors. All counsellors receive a comprehensive online training, which is free, but they do ask you to commit to volunteering once you are trained. The training is thought-provoking, and quite challenging, but this allows you to feel equipped when you start to do your shifts. You are allocated a coach who guides you through your training, giving you feedback on your progress, and then once you graduate and start volunteering, you have a supervisor who is logged into the same online platform, so they can see your conversations, and provide support where necessary. When a texter makes contact, they are allocated to a counsellor, who can see the message on their computer screen, and can then respond. You don’t use your own phone, and the texter couldn’t contact you off the platform, and all the messages are logged, so you can check previous history. There are safeguarding protocols, and risk assessment strategies, so that if a texter is in imminent danger, the supervisor can mobilise emergency services, or appropriate support.
I have found this work incredibly rewarding. It has given me the confidence to calmly deal with someone who is expressing that they want to die, or who is just about to self-harm. Part of the training teaches you how to establish rapport and identify strengths in the texter, which is a wonderful way to connect with another human. It is inspiring to see the courage shown by others, and to connect with their distress by showing them you care without judgement. The training also encourages counsellors to support texters in shared problem solving – this chimes with my coaching experience; that the best answers lie within ourselves, we just need the right conditions to access those answers.
Self-harming, for example, is often triggered by a need to control overwhelming emotions, or to feel something when we are feeling numb or dissociated. Just talking about it, being allowed to express those feelings (or lack of feelings) and being supported in doing so, can help someone step away from their razor and phone a friend or self-soothe more safely. The beauty of a direct messaging service, is that many say that they feel too shy or anxious to speak to someone, but can build rapport with the counsellors via text. It fills a gap, because not everyone feels comfortable phoning the Samaritans or talking to their GP.
There is also something supportive about being able to see, written down, a message from a crisis counsellor reminding you that you are strong, courageous, brave, or that your feelings are understandable.
My experience as a coach and GP has shown me that increasingly we live in a society where people feel overwhelmed, working faster and longer, or struggling to get work or a permanent place to live, and feeling less connected with their community and families. For some, these feelings result in overwhelming anxiety, poor sleep, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or isolation. Unfortunately many of us feel ill-equipped to ask about distressing emotions, worried that if we ask we won’t be able to deal with whatever we uncover. In my view, as a society we need to equip ourselves to ask the difficult questions, to check whether our colleagues, family or friends are struggling. Because we know that suicide can be prevented just by talking. Just asking someone, with genuine concern, whether they have been thinking about killing themselves can allow that person to share their level of distress, and get appropriate help. Similarly, self-harming is an expression of distress, and being heard and supported can help someone to find another way out. I really enjoyed the training that I received, and as a result I feel much clearer about what I can do to help when someone is in crisis. I am no longer scared to ask.
Since so many people communicate via their phones, this service seems to me to be a valuable addition to our mental health resources. It’s good to know that there is a growing army of crisis counsellors on hand to listen, support, validate, encourage and soothe.
Will you join them?
Message from the charity:
“If you’re looking for a mental health volunteering opportunity that won’t drain your time, but will connect you to an online community throughout the UK, then sign up to be a volunteer with Shout. Shout will be a free direct messaging service for people in a state of crisis and will go live in 2019. For now, the service is being piloted with charity partners, and they are urgently looking for volunteers to join now and help launch the service.”