What barriers do people face in seeking help?
There is this culture where sometimes you feel like you have to be strong and being strong means not asking for help. I think it’s the opposite. It takes strength to ask. It can be really, really difficult to call up and say, ‘Actually, I’m having a tough time.’ I think it’s inspiring how strong people are to ask for help in a culture where people are expected to bury things and deal with them on their own. The challenges in seeking help can be quite specific to a professional role. I think that people often think that professionals need to be perfect, they need to get everything right, but you are a human and things don’t always go well. Sometimes you just need to talk with someone.
What motivated you initially to volunteer on a helpline?
I lost a friend to suicide when I was 18. It was a really difficult thing at the time. Like a lot of people who lose someone in that way, you can have a sense of responsibility. I learned over the years that it’s not your responsibility what someone else chooses to do, but one thing I am passionate about is making sure that everyone who is going through a difficult time has the option to speak to somebody. When people ask for help they can sometimes feel like they are going around in circles. There is nobody who stops and says ‘Stay with us and we will listen. We are here for you for as long as you need.’ I believe quite strongly that people should only have to ask once. They should be able to do something very simple, like picking up the phone, and find somebody straight away who will talk to them.
What have you learned through your work?
I think it has made me more aware of how I interact with people and the times that I’m listening to speak rather than to understand. I can really pull myself up sometimes in conversation. A real learning curve for me was that initially I thought I was going into it to give something back, and I did give something back, I hope, but actually I have gained so much from it. It has been an incredible privilege to have people call you up, trust you and talk to you. Generally, professionals think that things have to be really terrible to contact a helpline but actually we are grateful for the call. It is a really rewarding thing for volunteers. No one would ever be burdening us by picking up the phone.
What are the common issues that people want to talk about?
A lot of calls that we get to professional peer support lines are about workplace stress. Sometimes it will be family and relationship issues making work more difficult. Other times it will be professional conduct issue. When professionals are experiencing mental health difficulties, it can be really tough to ask for help. There is a lot of stigma around mental health in society generally and in professions as well. We get calls from people around retirement age who are coming up to a transition in their career. Sometimes it’s people who are feeling lonely or they have had a really bad day. Work place bullying can also be an issue. That’s when it can be really useful to talk to a peer and someone who knows what it is like to work in a similar workplace.
New listening service
The AOP Peer Support Line offers a free confidential helpline for individuals at any stage of their optical career to discuss their problems with a trained, understanding and empathetic peer who recognises the pressures of optical practice. Calls will be answered 24 hours a day, with volunteers on duty to receive and return calls between 8am and 8pm; providing callers with a safe and dedicated space to sort through their issues, gain clarity, and help to reduce any stress or tension.