Conversation and Company: Chit-Chat

By Will Entwistle

We live in a mental health crisis. Despite technological connectivity, many feel disconnected and are pining for support. But we also live in a pandemic that some predict will compound the existing mental health crisis. In fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently suggest that mental health in the UK worsened ‘by 8.1% on average as a result of the pandemic’. Feelings of loneliness and entrapment are linked to a heightened risk of suicide; with no end in sight, we need desperately to address and to allay this disconnection. Mental health services in Britain faltered before the pandemic and Durham’s students are certainly suffering, as seen with a 94% increase in the number of freshers declaring mental illnesses in 2019 from 2015.

The act of conversation can offer respite from hardship but also a comfort to those feeling lonely. We need the company of others, albeit from a distance. Chit-chat provides callers with precisely this company. Durham student Lewis Alexander Baxter, the founder of Chit-Chat, set out the organisation’s purpose, in part, as a response to COVID–19. The presence of another person, or at least the knowledge of a possible conversation, is the precursor to mental health support; or as Lewis suggests in his TEDxDurhamUniversity address, silence is too often a killer. The talk, aptly entitled ‘Talk’, marks the power of communication which Chit-Chat embodies.

THE AIM

Lewis stresses the aim of Chit-Chat’s is to allay loneliness with the simplicity of conversation. It’s a gateway to seeking specialist help from mental health experts. The service offers anonymity and a 12-hour window for conversation with trained volunteers, from 9am–9pm. Lewis says, “We are not a counselling service” and persists, “we are not a helpline’.

Talking is the foundation of Chit-Chat. The conversation, though, is distinct from that of mental health services because it is unrelated to mental states, and instead intends to divert the mind elsewhere; or as Lewis puts it, “Sometimes you need someone to chat to, to escape to.” Escaping might seem remiss, but this is not the case. Lewis distinguishes Chit-Chat’s performance from that of different mental health helplines by suggesting they engage callers “in prescriptive questioning” to grasp the state of the person’s mental health. “We avoid all of that”, he says frankly. The service focuses exclusively on “positive conversations” to put callers at ease. It is not a denial of a caller’s mental plight but is instead a caring exchange; it is a reminder of things worth enjoying.

Over nine million adults across the UK are either ‘always’ or ‘often’ lonely

Co-op and the British Red Cross’ 2019 study, ‘Escaping the Bubble’

VOLUNTEERING AND ACCESSIBILITY

The accessibility to Chit-Chat’s services applies to both callers and volunteers. That is, volunteers benefit from their work alongside callers, but the search for more help continues. A YouGov survey suggests that 69% of adults in Britain feel happier and more relieved after speaking with someone. “The beauty of Chit-Chat”, says Lewis, “is that you can volunteer on your terms”. He insists that volunteering is flexible which, in part, is its strength. Making volunteering accessible permits more people to help reassure callers that they are listened to during this disconnected time. It comforts from a distance.

But why volunteer? Well, the act of conversation, in this case, is bilateral. Callers are reassured by the presence of another, and this is reciprocated with the volunteer. “The power of conversation should not just be seen in the eyes of those that ring. Those that volunteer have benefitted immensely”, Lewis says. The Co-op and the British Red Cross’ 2019 study, ‘Escaping the Bubble’, claims over nine million adults across the UK are either ‘always’ or ‘often’ lonely, with 75% of this particular group saying ‘they do not know where to turn for support’. This figure is expected to worsen in part because of the faltering provision of mental health services, but also the feeling of entrapment many feel during lockdown. Prof Rory O’Connor, of the University of Glasgow, recognises that many ‘feel trapped by mental pain, but in this current context they are feeling physical entrapment.’ O’Connor’s research attempts to understand the population’s response to the pandemic in terms of mental health. Lockdown intends to isolate people to contain and eventually remove the virus, thus compounding the suffering of those already vulnerable to loneliness. We must, then, use platforms like Chit-Chat that enable conversation and permit those suffering the opportunity to reach-out. In this time of duress, volunteering is immensely beneficial for volunteer and caller alike.

THE FUTURE

“Absolutely. Absolutely”, answers Lewis, when asked if Chit-Chat is for the long-term. “We were born in a pandemic and in response to immediate crisis”, Lewis adds. It is not a temporary measure.  Loneliness pervades each pocket of the UK and Lewis urges people to call Chit-Chat and natter away to relieve them of feelings of detachment and entrapment. After all, “no one escapes the grip of loneliness and isolation without help”.

“Value chatting with friends and with those you trust and love because that is all we have at the moment

Lewis Alexander Baxter, founder of chit-chat

THE POWER OF CONVERSATION FOR DURHAM’S STUDENT BODY

“Degrees are not easy, jobs are not easy…We can all feel quite overwhelmed at the uncertainty we’re facing”, Lewis says. The government’s mixed messages surrounding COVID–19 emburden many with further anxiety. “It’s okay to feel this way”, mentioning, almost as an afterthought, that we must “value chatting with friends and with those you trust and love because that is all we have at the moment.”

Image: Blackburn Central High School

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