King’s alumna Shannon’s experience as a University Outreach Volunteer for Samaritans was challenging, rewarding and gave her pause for thought. In this installment of our blog series on mental wellbeing, Shannon outlines the duties she undertook as part of her role and describes the impact it had on her own perspective of mental health.
As I was unable to dedicate the hours that would be required to become a listening volunteer, I opted to take on a role in the outreach division – which resulted in one of the most positive and fulfilling experiences of my life. In this role, it was my responsibility to contact universities (the counselling services, libraries, university halls, student societies, and more) to organise meetings with those who we might be able to assist in promoting the Samaritans to students.
Upon meeting with university staff in their respective divisions, I was surprised to find them enthusiastic about advertising our services, having been worried that it might be perceived as potential competition. However, the vast majority of counselling services were happy to have us on board, seeing us a means of additional support for their students- particularly those on the services waiting list.
Thus, it was apparent to me that Samaritans was generally welcomed by university mental health services. The wellbeing of the students was paramount, and Samaritans already had a good name- it sold itself. Hence it took little effort on my part to arrange meetings with university facilities where I could talk about the full range of services that Samaritans had to offer, and what would be of most benefit to students. In conjunction with this, I focused on getting Samaritans advertised via various electronic means: in emails that got sent to students, on their webpages, on the counselling services application site, and all over the university on plasma screens where possible (i.e. campuses and libraries). This was so that students were aware that Samaritans knew how stressful university could be- and that they wanted to help.
The role also altered my own perspective on mental illness. Whilst I had my own experiences with it, and did not view it as something that should be stigmatised, it became clear through working at Samaritans just how limited my understanding was. The people who worked there were so much more open than me- and needed to be if they were going to be on the telephone, facing individuals with problems that I myself might find difficult to empathise with. However, as advertised, the service is completely judgment free – this means that no matter what the problem, or what the caller is experiencing, the volunteers wanted to hear it.
Working in this role taught me that mental illness can take many forms: it wasn’t limited to existential depression, but rather could be triggered by any number of factors: from routine boredom to the loss of a loved one. All callers are offered the same befriending service- Samaritans understood that small triggers can lead to some pretty big feelings, something that I was taught during my time there.
I also learnt a lot about the vast amount of services that were offered at universities in an attempt to assist students who may be suffering from mental illness. This is particularly pertinent with the newly formed wellbeing service at King’s, and also the peer listening volunteers trained by the Counselling Service. The support networks for struggling students were expanding, and it was evident to me that mental health was finally being treated with the importance that it deserved. Samaritans wanted to be part of this development in university culture, and encouraged the openness with which mental health was finally being addressed.
Shannon with some of the KCL peer supporters and Freddie and Julia from King’s Sport and King’s Wellbeing at last year’s ‘Time to Talk’ event.
One example of my active involvement during my time with Samaritans, whilst being a student myself at Kings, was taking part in the ‘Time to Talk’ event run by the recently set up King’s Wellbeing team. The role consisted of manning a stall and going out from this base to approach students to encourage conversations around mental health. This simple job proved incredibly challenging at first- approaching cliques of students who seemed to be having DMCs was no easy task! However, once we got talking with some of them, it became apparent that the majority had encounters with mental illness- be it a personal experience, or a vicarious one through a friend or a loved one. The event was all about removing the stigma around mental health and working towards an environment that was open to talking about emotional problems – without regarding them a sign of individual weakness, as has long been the case. It was all about encouraging individuals to broach the day-to-day stresses that, if left unacknowledged, could have serious implications: an initiative that Samaritans had been encouraging since it first began in 1953.
The quickest way to contact the Samaritans and get a response is by phone on 116 123, this number is FREE to call 24 hours a day. You can also contact them via email, text, the web and by letter. http://www.samaritans.org/
Samaritans phone lines will be open 24/7 throughout Christmas and new year and their centre in central London is open for face-to-face visitors between 9am and 9pm every day throughout this period.