Updated: Oct 27, 2020
Back in early June (which now feels like an age ago) I was browsing the headlines when I came across an article about Prince William volunteering for the crisis textline, SHOUT 85258. I was really interested, because at the time I was really bedding-in to my voluntary work and had actively made a decision to take a sabbatical to dedicate myself to volunteering while I reconfigured my career. I thought it sounded really interesting and, after reading about it further, I decided to register to volunteer with them. It interested me because after reading about it on their website, it occurred to me that this is a crucial free service which helps people when they are mentally at their lowest, and the volunteers are able to commit to it from the comfort of their own homes. I was also interested in the training aspect of the role, because although I volunteer largely because I want to help people, I also do it for self-development because I believe that something can be learned from every experience you have.
After initially registering, I largely forgot about it, even though I remember them saying that it takes about three months to approve applicants and it is also pending references. Then, in early September (which felt a bit out of the blue), I heard back from them and was asked to join a training cohort! I was so pleased, and registered immediately. The training cohort consists of roughly 25 hours of online training, and once I passed, I would be able to join the squad of volunteers (all going well). At this point, you are made aware of the fact that this is a huge time commitment, and it's pretty clear that you need to be pretty dedicated in order to make it to the end.
Once trained-up, they ask you to complete at least 200 hours of volunteer work in order to justify the cost of your training. You have a dedicated Coach who oversees your training, marks your assignments and is there to respond to any questions you might have. Even though it's 100% online, it still takes management and I find that this is so key when keeping volunteers engaged.
A little background on SHOUT 85258
It was launched in the UK in May, 2019 and was born from the concept of Crisis Text Line, which was founded in the US in 2013
It's a free, confidential, 24/7 text messaging support service for anyone who is struggling to cope
In the UK, it's affiliated with Heads Together, a wonderful initiative that focuses on the importance of mental health and how it is often very difficult to admit that we're struggling
Since launching, SHOUT have had more than 400,000 conversations with people who are anxious, stressed, depressed, suicidal or overwhelmed and who need immediate support
As its operational model relies on volunteers who work from home, it has become invaluable since Covid hit because they've been able to operate as normal, during a time when crisis has been at an all-time high
The way it works is, a texter texts SHOUT to 85258, and a crisis volunteer will respond to them and be there to listen and offer support
Perhaps most importantly, when someone texts in they are speaking to a human!
How was the training?
The training itself was really well-structured, it allowed you to go at your own pace and it was really clear in terms of what is expected of you as a Shout volunteer. You still have to stick to deadlines, which is good because if you're serious about taking on the volunteer role you will complete all the quizzes and practise assignments.
The main thing I learned is that volunteering as a Shout volunteer is not something to be taken lightly. The volunteers have to deal with really serious topics (from abuse, to suicide and depression) and the training reflects this - if you're not serious about being a Shout volunteer, you simply won't get through the training. There was a lot of information to take in, and it focused on mental health, taking each conversation step-by-step, what to do in situations that might make you feel uncomfortable and how you are supported as a volunteer. Every conversation is presided over by a trained supervisor, so volunteers are never alone.
Even though I can't talk about the message system or stick up any screen grabs (confidentiality runs through this entire organisation, and rightly so), there are many things I learned during this training cohort which I will now be taking into my every day life.
Empathy is everything and, even though it takes practise and conscious effort, it's so important not to judge others when you have no idea about their situation
Confidentiality and trust rule out. You're actively being there for people when they most need you - they need to know that you won't breach that trust unless they are in real danger of being hurt - in which case there may need to be an intervention if a situation has spiralled out of control
Compassion is always possible, even when you've not been through what they're going through - you have to be present with them in their situation and be there so they can feel supported
Self-care is really important - how can you possibly hope to be there for someone else, if you can't be kind to yourself? If you're not in a good head space, everyone will suffer as a result
People text in with their problems, but it's not your job to solve them. You're there to listen, not to make suggestions or reprimand.
I don't know why, but the sentence that really brought it all together for me was this: Bring your warmest, most empathetic and least judgmental self to every Texter, no matter what they may be facing. It came towards the end of the training, and made me think about how it's important to not only do this when volunteering but also when you're on the train, or at the supermarket, or picking your kids up from school. The world could certainly do with a touch more empathy and compassion for what people are going through.
The skills you learn throughout training don't necessarily come naturally - active listening, compassion and empathy require you to be alert, and because you're there for someone who might be at the lowest point they've ever been at, it's so important that you turn your full attention to them when you're on shift.
Since graduating from my training cohort, I've completed two shifts and will be completing many more. I won't be writing about what happens on my shifts anywhere, because it's not my place to tell. What I can and will say though, is that I've joined a friendly, kind and wonderful community of volunteers and I've been welcomed so warmly that it makes me feel kinda tingly. I am really looking forward to working alongside them.