“I have made two attempts to kill myself. At the time I really felt there were no other options and that people would be better off without me” says Maxine Williamson
Through her twenties, she battled depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Like most people, she believed suicide was a selfish option. But once you reach that point, misery masks itself like logic and you can come to some warped conclusions. “I actually thought it was the least selfish thing to do.”
The distressing root of her illness made her feel she couldn’t talk to her family. She felt like she was a burden. When you’re moving to a big city or starting university, friends can be difficult to find. Tougher still to find ones who you feel able share things with that you’ve never put into words before.
Suicide amongst students is a problem. There has been a 49% increase in student suicides between the years 2007-2011, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Whilst male student suicides were up 36%, female student suicides almost doubled in the same period. It is likely those numbers are even higher now.
Nights were always the hardest. While others slept peacefully, insomnia left her with what felt like endless hours of nothing but recurring negative thoughts. Maxine intermittently phoned listening services. She says they provided company and allowed her to relieve the pressure of feelings she had bottled up.
One of those listeners is Elliot Gathercole. Elliot graduated from King’s last year after studying history. He started volunteering for Nightline London in 2013, and was a hotline listener receiving calls for two years. He now shares a flat with two friends in Oval.
Nightline is a charity that provides an anonymous and confidential listening service. It is managed and delivered by students for students. 36 Nightlines cover over 90 universities and colleges in the UK and Republic of Ireland.
At first he is slightly cautious. The level of anonymity that Nightline demands resulted in our meeting having some preconditions and Elliot is understandably a little guarded. This apprehension begins to fade as he tells me about the helplines conference he attended the previous day. He’s proud but not boastful when he tells me Nightline won two awards this year.
When asked why he got involved with charity he talks about importance of mental health awareness he looks thoughtful as he leans in to the table. “Generally speaking, lots of people have some personal motivation for wanting to volunteer, be that friends or family. I didn’t, I just saw it as a fantastic opportunity to support students.”
Shifts are 14 hours long: 6pm to 8am. The students who work on the phones are all volunteers. People generally arrive quarter of an hour early to check emails from the previous day and catch up.
“At 6pm all the lines go on. And then it’s a bit surreal because there’s a bit of a waiting game. You know there’s going to be calls but you don’t know when they’re going to come. And as with all Nightlines you don’t know what they’re going to be about.”
He says he finds the hardest calls are ones with themes of depression, abuse or suicidal thoughts. But there are extensive procedures to ensure listeners are supported. During the call colleagues will check if someone is okay. If the call has been particularly distressing a listener will be offered further support.
“It’s so sad to think somebody has gone through something so difficult and haven’t been supported. But equally those are the most fulfilling calls, because at that point in time, they need someone to listen and even though it’s difficult to hear, you’re there for them.”
In a recent survey 87% of people who used Nightline said they felt their mental wellbeing had improved after ringing.
But Amber Taylor, a Psychology Assistant, who has previously worked in a Crisis Resolution team, stresses that although services like Nightline can be used in conjunction with professional support, they are not a replacement for talking therapies. She says: “If someone is unable to access the right support more should be done to develop services.”
Amber also volunteered for Exeter Nightline (Voice). While studying, she had her own difficulties: “I found adjusting to university initially really difficult therefore being able to normalise the difficulties other students had, and seeing the positive impact of this, was really rewarding.”
According to The Royal College of Psychiatrists this shared experience adds real value to a listening service. They say peer support is a protective influence against mental health symptoms, particularly where peers have had similar life experiences.
Elliot talks about how young people in London can struggle to feel connected: “You can often be messaging people on Facebook and not really be listening to what they’re saying. In a social media age real listening is an underrated skill.” He emphasises that Nightline isn’t an advice service they allow students space to deliberate options without judgment.
Research released by the charity youthsight showed 1 in 12 students experience suicidal thoughts. The two most common reasons for contacting the London service are academic stress and depression or loneliness which together make up 20% of calls.
As the sun starts to come up and the shift ends, tired eyes discuss their plans for the day. Some people go to the gym, others head straight to library and “battle through the day”. But Elliot says he would always head straight to bed and try and sleep till at least 1pm.
In June Elliot got the position of London Nightline co-ordinator, making him the only full time employee. He now supports and trains hotline volunteers as well as helping run the charities publicity and admin. He is unsure about his future but he is certain he will stay in the charity sector.
Despite his hard work Elliot continually pours credit back to Nightline’s Listeners: “The volunteers at nightline work tirelessly overnight to ensure the students of London are supported. They’re the real heroes. The service couldn’t possibly run without them”
Maxine bought her first house earlier this year. As she talks about the future her hazel eyes are bright and full of life. Speaking to her, now 36, it is difficult to believe she is describing herself as she talks about suicide.
She speaks about her illness with a stirring honesty and clarity but it’s still hard for her to describe the torment she’s been through. She doesn’t know how much worse those nights would have been without the support of Nightline and other listening services. At times she stops and closes her eyes to find her words: “I just want people to know it is okay to talk about their problems. No matter how lonely and isolated you feel, you’re not the only one and somebody wants to listen.”
If you feel you may need to talk about anything with confidentiality and without judgement London Nightline are available every night of university term from 6pm till 8am: 020 7631 0101
You can also call Samaritans anytime 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: 116 123
Featured image accredited to Holger.Ellgaard