cw: suicide and emotional distress
This year, for our Mental Health edition, Craccum talked with second-year psychology student Rodolfo Villanueva, an active volunteer in the Youthline community. Youthline is a counselling and mentoring service primarily targeted towards young people who are seeking either emotional support or personal development. Their primary goal is to ensure young people know where to get help and can access support when they need it. To maintain their work towards this goal, the organization relies on fully-trained, committed volunteer counsellors like Rodolfo.
Craccum Disclaimer: The following interview documents the individual experiences of a volunteer working at Youthline. It does not represent the views of the organization as a whole. The intention of this article is to provide insight into the nature of particular services which are run to help students with mental health. Youthline volunteers undergo extensive training. You should not attempt to adopt or mimic the services they provide as outlined in this article.
This year, I’ve kind of been taking on several different roles. I’m trained as a phone counsellor, which means I deal with people under distress – through text or phone – managing risk and providing care and protection. Recently, I’ve also been training as a facilitator, which involves the training [of other counsellors], working alongside them, running seminars and providing supervision.
I’ve always wanted to work at helplines, because for me, my goal has always been to become a clinical psychologist and to work in therapy. I’ve always thought “I want more experience and practice”, and naturally the thing that brought me closest to that was working at helplines.
So essentially, we provide early intervention counselling or emotional support. What that means is that when people are feeling in a state of intense emotional distress, or in a really tough situation, we’re their first point of contact. We use a client-centred and strengths-based approach to guide them towards their own solutions, so we don’t really try to provide the answers to our client’s problems, unless we’re dealing with referrals. We really focus on listening to them, trying to help get themselves out of their current situation, and reframing things in hopes of providing new insight.
Part of our job is to manage and assess risk. People sometimes call in with thoughts of ending their lives or hurting themselves, and it’s our job to make sure we assess the risk properly, and ensure they are safe. I am motivated by the challenge, and I’ll try to book my shifts around the time when volunteers are most needed, which is often the night shift.
Some of my experiences involve understanding where their thoughts, such as those about self-harming, suicide, etc. are coming from. As a mentor, it’s been interesting witnessing the general ideas of volunteers prior to training. People who come into training – they want to help, which, understandably enough, might mean providing a solution; but for the most part, this is not the approach we teach. One of the tenets that underlie our approach considers the client as the expert of their own lives; as such, we are not there to provide a solution to their problems. There’s a lot of unique challenges, but I think overall it’s a great way to provide for people who are in need, in situations where they are unable to otherwise reach out for help. Because our service is anonymous, it bridges the gap of people not wanting to reach out for [professional] help or counselling, or even just not wanting to explain to their parents or their friends their situation, so they reach out to us. With anonymity, I find that people are a lot more open and genuine about what they are going through, which has been quite profound for me.
What we generally do is try to assess the level of risk. If it’s imminent, we need to try and do something to help immediately to ensure they are safe — which sometimes means calling an ambulance, for example, if they have hurt themselves. However, people who come to us are complex and dynamic, so sometimes, you’ve just got to make a call as to whether they require an alternative approach.
For example, one time I received a call from someone with a history of suicidal attempts: they were next to the train tracks threatening to take their own life. The general approach to a situation like this would be to first conduct a risk assessment, but I felt this wouldn’t help the situation. It was important for me to recognize how do I weave my needs to keep her safe, with her needs to be heard. So for me, I made the call to deviate from the clinical route by asking her to move away from the train tracks so I could hear her better. And from there we just had a natural conversation. So while there are effective ways to handle high-risk situations that fit under the structure or paradigm, I think that as you become more experienced, it’s up to you as a practitioner to make a judgement call, and as long as you can reason that what you’re doing makes the person you’re helping safe, then your solution would be effective.
I’ve learnt to be far less judgemental of other people’s situations, and just appreciate that people are often more complex and different than what they portray on the surface. You get to understand and hear people as they really are, and because of that, I’ve challenged myself to respect people beyond what they portray on the surface; and instead be open about what they usually keep to themselves. People come from different walks of life, and that will always inform who they are – and although I might not like it, they are still a person worth respecting nonetheless.
There are four steps, and the process generally takes a year to become a fully-independent counsellor. Some people may take longer depending on their personal circumstances. There is a personal development programme, which puts you through your paces in terms of introspection, so it gets you to examine and magnify your own interactions with others, and all your own behavioural tendencies and faults surface.
The second part teaches you the fundamental skills required to become a phone counsellor, and you have to obviously display your skills and proficiency with that.
Thirdly, Youthline runs an annual marae weekend, when all newbies meet through activities and connect with each other and the organization as a whole.
The fourth step is transition, where you’ll be taking supervised calls and texts, and that’s where you start getting into the role. At the end, you’ll get assessed whether or not you can go ahead.
One important quality that a good counsellor needs is the capacity of self-reflection, which is to recognize what they’re doing, see the advantages and disadvantages and considering other approaches. Essentially, breaking down their practice or themselves, which is quite a difficult task, but ultimately being able to self-critique is an important quality.
We run events throughout the year in which we encourage people to participate and donate money. Alternatively, you can give at any time through our website.
However, I think the most underrated way to support us is simply by utilizing the service if you need it – calling or texting if there’s something you want to talk about, and just to give the service a go if you’re needing that help. As university students, it’s normal to struggle with our mental health, and with internal counselling services often being under resourced, we’re another option to students to find help as well. Also, our services are not just provided for adolescents – even though it’s called Youthline, we provide our services to pretty much anyone regardless of age.
Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email email@example.com or online chat
If you would like to donate to Youthline, visit youthline.co.nz/donate. If you would like to volunteer, please email firstname.lastname@example.org expressing your interest.