‘I’m calling because I have pills in my room, and I’m afraid that if I don’t have any distraction tonight, I’ll try and kill myself again.’ As I listened, the man on the other side of the phone began to describe his life and pains to me, more openly than with his girlfriend, his roommates, or even his family. He talked about his scars, both mental and physical, his intense loneliness, and the urge to kill himself that always returned at night. We talked for hours with complete openness and trust between us, about everything in his life that had brought him to this point. I never knew his name. He was just another caller, having the worst night of his life.
Loneliness, abuse, and general depression are just some of the reasons Niteline answers such a huge amount of calls each year. Students coming to University for the first time often leave behind every friend they have, coming to a city where they’ve never been before. Although they may never have been somewhere as crowded as a college, they’ve also never felt more alone. Even for students who have been in Cork for years, it can be so easy to lie in bed, and wonder if anyone would notice if you didn’t get up. When you feel like others couldn’t care less about you, it becomes easy to agree.
From Mondays to Thursdays, 9pm-1am ordinary students sacrifice their nights to sit by the phone, waiting for calls they hope won’t come. Staying awake until the early morning so that no one has to be alone when they need someone the most. Trained by the Samaritans, every year anonymous students join UCC Niteline to reassure callers that they have the strength to make it through the night.
Perhaps a fight with a boyfriend or girlfriend splits the friend group against them, and right when they’re needed the most, their support group disappears. We get calls from people in broken relationships, where their significant other publicly mocks and insults them, shouting and scorning in front of a crowd, what was told in moments of private trust. Parents and lovers, who should protect and care, instead threaten and hit, and long after your skull has stopped vibrating, the shock and fear remains. Former friends poison the minds of everyone around, and the friend who once beamed and laughed now looks away from you. Sometimes there is no traumatic incident, but when people simply don’t care enough, to help or hurt you, it aches far longer than a blow across the face.
Before they can help to bandage and mend the depressed and apathetic as they slog through their lowest points, our volunteers are trained for weeks by veteran Samaritan volunteers. Rather than just waiting for their own turn to talk, our volunteers are trained to fully understand how you feel, exploring the issue completely, trying to learn how the situation is to you as an individual, rather than shoving our own experiences and opinions in your face. Too often when you bare yourself to someone, taking the risk to take off your mask and reveal who you truly are, and what you’re truly fighting against, what you’re feeling, and what you fear, the other person just laughs. Perhaps they try to one-up you with how much harder they have had it. Even the most well-meaning person all too quickly stops listening and starts talking at you, naively believing they know more about your problem after your two-minute brief summary than you do, after making your home for years in the eye of the hurricane. After taking the risk to drop the mask you’re wearing, uncovering how you really feel, you resolve never to do the same again. Niteline’s volunteers never seek to condemn or control, never breaking the seal of privacy that exists between the opposite sides of the phone.
Ireland has one of the highest rates of teenage suicides in the EU, but suicide does not just happen. Depression should not be part of the Irish culture, wedged in between the 6 pack of Tayto and Barry’s tea. Ireland has such a high rate because unfortunately a lot of Irish people, especially Irish men, would sooner kill themselves than confess that they’re struggling. We’re so afraid of seeming weak, or of being a bother, that we bruise and bleed ourselves before abandoning comfortable small talk to tell people, most who would do anything to help someone in need, that in fact ‘I’m not doing very well today’.There is never shame in asking for help, there is never shame in looking for support, there is never shame in asking for a hand up when you can’t get off your knees.Turning to someone when you’re in need is not a sign of weakness.
The vast majority of people who attempt to take their own life do so at the end of long periods of mental health struggles, against low self-esteem, anxiety, addiction or any of a gargantuan range of issues. Additional factors, like bullying, hopelessness, broken or violent families, can all pull you closer to the edge of that cliff. Ultimately, until a person chooses to share how they feel, there is only so much help anyone can give. Yet there are warnings, ways that people scream for help without ever saying a word. Warning signs that we can act on, to help share the weight that threatens to pull them down.
When someone begins to eat less and less, when they have the emotional range of a quadratic equation, they need help. When someone’s quality of work, when someone’s passions seem to dwindle day by day, until there’s no longer any driving force, no longer energy behind their eyes. The person who needs help the most may be the person who’s perpetually enraged, or endlessly crying, but they can also be the person whose smile is a landmark of the lecture hall. They put on a mask, act a clown, putting a smile on everyone’s faces, but as soon as the crowd leaves, so too does their smile. Robin Williams was funny, happy and loved by the world. Then one day he tied a noose.
The biggest thing you can do for someone, is to encourage them to talk. Invite a friend who’s becoming quieter to Starbucks during a break in lectures to ask them how they are. Even if they thankfully turn out to be perfectly fine, they will appreciate that you cared, they will know they can turn to you in future and the worst-case scenario is that you’re spending your break grabbing a coffee with a friend. Don’t forget your own mental health is important too. While it may seem noble to try and hide pain from others, or to try and take so much pain from others that you’ve begun to struggle yourself, remember that it simply doesn’t work like that. I once met a holocaust survivor who spent years of his childhood believing his family was dead, who survived by fleeing from house to house, not feeling fresh air and sunlight for years. Hermann Polack tried to cover up those mental scars, but said it was like ‘trying to shove a shit under the carpet, but even though you can’t see it, you can still smell it.’ Your issues may not be on the same scale, but if something matters to you, then it matters. Someone will always have it worse, but that doesn’t make your suffering any easier, it doesn’t make your unhappiness invalid. After all, someone will always be happier, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to enjoy a nice coffee.
Even though volunteering for NiteLine could be difficult, there were few things that I valued more during my time in college. Niteline introduced me to the kindest, sweetest people UCC has ever held. Some of the most charismatic people I’ve ever been fortunate enough to meet first introduced themselves during those late-night shifts. Although a call could break your heart, the volunteers sitting next to me so often made me laugh so hard I fell from my chair, and told some of the greatest stories I’ve heard, from overly romantic boyfriends to attempting to steal the bin from nightclubs. The people I met inspired me and had me fired up to take on anything life could throw at me. My second only shift, ended with me and two others wedged firmly in a gate behind Boole Library at 1.30 in the morning, in one of the stupidest and happiest memories I have of my time here. On the worst nights, after the most intensive of calls I got into bed feeling a decade older than when I got out. But I could be glad that at the very least, I was there for someone who needed it.
The time I spent with Niteline was one of the most formative, valuable things I’ve offered to the university, and if you’re interested in volunteering as I did, please contact Niteline at firstname.lastname@example.org or volunteer with anyone of the incredible organizations like Pieta House or the Samaritans.
Remember, there is never any shame in either seeking help yourself or encouraging someone who is struggling to seek the help and counsel of professionals. UCC has a counselling service for students and a wealth of other organizations all exist, to provide constant, stable support, to help you up when your own legs just can’t handle the task any longer. If you, or anyone close to you needs someone to talk to, please call any of the completely free numbers below. Depression doesn’t always mean a noose is within reach, but it does mean they need help.
UCC Niteline 1800 32 32 42,
Samaritans 116 123,
Pieta House – 021 434 1400
UCC Counselling – 4903565