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“The job we do in our day-to-day life is to listen”

Kirsty, a Peer Support Line volunteer since the line launched in 2017, tells OT  about how the pandemic helped open up conversations around mental health

kirsty psl
Getty/Malte Mueller

How long have you been in the profession, and what kind of work do you do?

I’ve been in the optometry business for 32 years. I started as a dispensing optician and then qualified as an optometrist. I have worked in hospitals, private practice, and big multiples. At the moment, I mainly do locum days for independents.

What initially made you start volunteering for the Peer Support Line?

Before mental health almost exploded during lockdown, it was already getting very concerning to me. It was close to home. Not a family member, but somebody close to me had mental health issues. It scared me that there wasn’t an awful lot of help around. She wasn’t in optics – it’s so prevalent everywhere. It concerned me, and I thought, “well, it’s going to be amongst optics as well as the general population. And I just want to see if I can help in some way.”

Over the last couple of years COVID-19 has presented a lot of challenges to people. Has the nature of the conversations you’ve been having changed?

I think they have stayed quite similar. Because people were more aware of mental health during lockdowns, I think it was almost more acceptable to phone in. It was okay to have a mental health problem, because everybody was struggling. I think people were more comfortable calling the line, and not being embarrassed about it. So, I think that the number of calls went up.

This line is completely confidential, and you can speak to someone who has come from the same professional background, who can completely empathise with what you’re going through

 

A lot of people are almost embarrassed to talk about it, to say, “I’m a professional person, but I’ve got a mental health issue.” But it’s the case that this line is completely confidential, and you can speak to someone who has come from the same professional background, who can completely empathise with what you’re going through.

If there are groups of people or certain demographics who don’t call the line as much, what would you say to encourage them to do so?

If they’re nervous about it, we’re just here to listen. Sometimes it can be quite a daunting experience, talking to someone about a mental health issue that you haven’t experienced before. You maybe don’t even realise that it is a mental health issue at the time, but you just need to offload. We’re here whether you have a diagnosed mental health issue or not – we’re here to listen to whatever it may be. It may be a one-off thing. It may be an ongoing thing. Whatever it is, doesn’t matter how silly, just call. We’re here to listen, not to give advice, not to judge – just to listen to you.

Are there recurring issues or conversations that you’re supporting people on?

Personally, I find a lot of bullying, and a lot of either newly qualified or pre-reg optometrists finding that a lot of pressure comes with being in practice. That is the subject of a lot of the calls that I’ve had, whether from a hospital or a multiple background.

We’re here to listen, not to give advice, not to judge – just to listen to you

 

In what circumstances would you refer people on for further support, whether that's to other areas within the AOP or to outside organisations?

I’d refer if I couldn’t help them, because at the end of the day, I’m not here for advice. I’m only here as part of a listening service. I often find that I'm signposting people to the legal or clinical teams, or other areas of AOP. I have signposted a few times to the GP if they’ve had a mental health issue and it’s a new thing, and they don't know what the next steps are. I can listen, but I can’t actually help them. So, I suggest they go to their GP. The PSL isn't a helpline, it’s a support line.

What would you say to someone who might want to start volunteering for the PSL?

I want to mention how supportive the AOP team is, and the team that deploys the training for PSL volunteers. They are absolutely second to none: very welcoming, really friendly, very approachable. If we have any questions, they never tell us that it’s not their department. They’ll always help us with our training or any issues that we’ve had. They are absolutely brilliant.

If anybody wants to volunteer, it’s not a daunting experience at all. It’s not like an interview. They just need to make sure you’re the right person to listen, and as optometrists and dispensing opticians, that’s pretty much what we do as a job anyway. So, actually most of us are pretty good at things like that. Never be frightened or think “maybe I can’t do that, or maybe I won’t be good enough for it.” Because actually, the job we do in our day-to-day life is to listen.