They're there to listen.

They’re there to listen.

This weekend, Bwog sat down with Orly Michaeli, CC ’14 to talk about her experience as one of the directors of Nightline.  We also talked about mental health culture at Columbia, general words of wisdom, and crying in the library.  It was an enlightening conversation.

Nightline is an anonymous, nonjudgmental peer listening service open from 10 pm to 3 am during the semester.  Tonight is their last night open until next fall.  They can be reached at 212-854-7777.

Bwog: How did you get involved in Nightline?

Orly: So I got involved my freshman year, second semester.  One of my friends saw a flier for an information session about training.  So I went with her and I was the only one who ended up doing it of the two of us, so I trained that whole semester.  The training was really intense.  We met once a week for three hours, and in those three hours we had a professional come in and talk to us about different topics, and then we had drills and exercises with people who are already on the lines to teach us more about the skills, or mock calls to practice.  Plus we did an additional call each week outside of training.  At the end there is a certification exam, and if you pass, then you can be on the lines.

B: Is that how training goes for everybody?

O: So everyone goes through the same training process, and at the end of it, you have the certification exam.  Some people pass, some people don’t.  For example, I didn’t pass the first time, and I had to train again for another half a semester.  Everybody has to go through semester training, and then either you pass that time and you can start working, you don’t pass and you’re offered re-training—just a shorter amount of training with a chance to take the test again—or you’re not offered it at all.

B: What does Nightline do for the Columbia community?

O: On a technical level, we’re a nonjudgmental, anonymous hotline.  So that means that when you call, you don’t know who you’re talking to.  Our listeners aren’t allowed to reveal their identity to anyone.  The only reason I can talk to you is because I’m the director and I no longer take calls.  I’m one of the directors; the other is Chavie Sharfman.  We also see ourselves as a tool to help people get through the night.  We’re a short-term service, who’s there to listen and there to plug people into bigger services.  So that’s the technical way of describing what we do, but to get more into the details, we’re really there for the late hours of the night when people don’t have someone to turn to.  Either your friends have heard that story a million times, and they don’t want to hear it again, or all your friends are asleep, or you feel to embarrassed to talk to someone.  I think there’s a misconception that Nightline is just for really serious problems, and we’re definitely there for that, but we’re also there for when you get a scary email from your professor really late at night, and you have no one to talk to about it.  And then there’s the nonjudgmental piece about it: it’s not about getting on the phone and preaching to people and giving people advice, it’s really—one of our listeners described it as we become a mirror for the caller, and we’re there to help the caller reflect on what’s going on and explore what’s going on and help that person get to their own conclusions and plug them into long-term solutions.

B: What is a typical conversation like?

O: It really depends on the caller.  There are some callers that are just super talkative and they just want to vent.  There’s some callers that are just really concrete and are like, “hi, this is what I want, and can you direct me to how I can do that.”  So it really depends on that person’s needs.  Also, timing really depends: sometimes they’re 10 minutes, sometimes they’re 2 hours.

B: What is your job as director and what are your hours like?

O: Either of us can be called from 10 to 3.  We’re open every night from 10 to 3.  So if someone’s on a shift and they need some support, if they need help, they’re always welcome to call us.  I guess those are the highest volume hours, but it’s really a 24-7 job because being a listener can be rough. We’re really an emotional support for the team. And we’re also just logistical support.

B: Is there anything Nightline isn’t able to do?

O: We’re definitely not a long-term service, and we acknowledge that.  In terms of long-term psychological services or long-term help, we know we can’t offer that.  So part of our role is being a liaison in getting people to those places.  We’ve learned a lot about different resources on campus, so when someone calls, we’ll know maybe this person will benefit from this specific support group.

B: Are there any calls where you get where you feel like you can’t help and you just have to refer them to someone else?

O: I don’t think I can talk about a specific call, but I think in general when I was on the lines, I felt pretty prepared for whatever would come my way.  I knew my role was to just be an empathetic listener and just give someone a space to share what had happened, and I’d love to just reach through the phone and just take those problems away, but we can’t do that.  My role was providing a space of support and comfort and getting that person through the night, and I felt equipped to do that every time.

B: What do you see as the stress and mental health culture here at Columbia?  What is Nightline’s role in alleviating that?

O: I’ve been reflecting a lot about that because I’m a senior, and I definitely feel that the stress culture—while we’re really struggling with it—has gotten so much better in the last four years.  I feel like there’s a bigger openness to talking about what’s going on and not pretending to be okay.  We now acknowledge that being healthy isn’t being perfect—being healthy is acknowledging when you need help.  I think that Nightline has a very specific niche.  We’re other students, so you kind of have that closeness of feeling that you’re talking to a peer, but also, we’re trained, so you know that the listener is going to have some knowledge of what to say and how to help you out.  Plus, we’re anonymous, so that’s just a really special situation… neither of you know who the other person is, and this person is sometimes telling you something that they’ve never told anyone else in their life.  And for this really brief moment, you’re connected, and you’re being really intimate, and then, as soon as they want it to end, it’s done.  And that’s the end of it.  And you don’t know what happened, what that person is going to do the next day, but for a moment you provided a really intimate connection to someone.  And I think that’s a pretty unique thing that we can provide, especially from 10 to 3—it’s like those hours of the night where it can be really lonely or really isolating if you’re going through something.  And to pick up the phone and know that there’s going to be someone at the other end of the line and wants to know what’s going on, that’s pretty unique.

B: What do you see as the reasons behind what you see as the improvement in Columbia’s mental health culture?

O: I feel like we’re talking about it more than we used to.  When we got here, the way of acknowledging that you were stressed was to be like, “ha ha I slept three hours; I’m so stressed.”  And I think now, sometimes, people are like, “I’m really stressed, and I just need to talk to you about it.”  I think a lot of student groups have been really fighting to have comfortable spaces where people can deal with that.  I’ve felt this way, and I’ve heard so many other people feel like, “I’m the only one who doesn’t have it together; everyone here has it together.”  And that’s just the most isolating thing, when you’re thinking that everyone has an internship or a job or perfect grades, and I think we’re all more open to acknowledging that that’s not the case.  So I think that helps.  But also student groups like Active Minds, Student Wellness Project, have all done a lot of work in giving people spaces and opportunities to not feel strange for needing help.

B: What’s your favorite part about being a part of Nightline?

O: It’s undoubtedly the best thing I did here, so it’s hard to pick one thing.  I guess I would say one, is the other people that I get to interact with.  I think Nightline attracts a really empathetic, caring person, and I’m just really lucky that I got to be surrounded by those people.  And also just the opportunity to form that really special connection where you’re called in a time of need and sharing that intimacy with someone—I don’t know if I’m ever going to get to do something like that again, so that was really special.

B: What’s the hardest part of being a part of Nightline?

O: I think the hardest part is that you don’t always get closure on a call.  Sometimes people are really thankful at the end and really overtly telling you that they appreciate talking, and sometimes you don’t get as much closure, or a call drops.  So I had to learn to let go…We don’t get to see what happens, what’s the ending of the story, and I think it was hard to come to terms with that.  But I think coming to terms with that was a really big lesson for me that I apply to other parts of my life, where I’m like, I did the best I can do, like I helped this person go to sleep or I helped this person have energy to deal with it tomorrow—or I at least gave them a place where they felt okay sharing.

B: Once you’ve left Nightline, are you able to say that you were a listener?

O: It really depends on the person, but around now, when all our seniors are leaving, and some of them are approaching their last shifts.  Sometimes people will post on Facebook—like we’ve had some alumni write articles.   Sometimes people just tell their closest friends, and sometimes they will just keep it a secret forever.  But once you’ve worked your last shift, you’re allowed to reveal yourself.

B: Do you have anything else to share about your experience?

O: One of the stigmas of calling Nightline is that people think their problem isn’t a big deal, but if it’s bothering you it is a big deal, and you should have a place to talk about that.  And we’re really there to talk about anything that’s on anybody’s mind.  So I just want to make sure that people know that.  And I think something I learned is just the power of listening to someone.  I think when people used to come to me, I was really prone to just giving them advice, and I think that’s what a lot of us do.  We just want to take the problem away as quickly as possible…And I think that doing Nightline made me a lot more comfortable in acknowledging that sometimes in life you’re going to be sad and that’s okay, and you don’t need to put a bandaid on it immediately.  And when someone comes to us and we just give them a solution and don’t give them a space to feel like their feelings matter and are normal and are valid, and if we just want take the problem away, we’re losing an opportunity to learn something.  And I think this made me a lot more comfortable with negative feelings.  And now, I’ll be like, okay, I’m having this feeling and it deserves attention.  Also, often, people get to their own conclusions, and they can figure out what to do, and most of the time it can be really helpful to feel like you’re feelings matter.  Nightline taught me to be able to do that and to actually listen and not just talk at people when they tell me what’s going on, and it really changed the way I speak on an interview, how I text people.  As soon as I was trained that freshman year, I realized that just being more thoughtful about what I was saying, and taking a second to just listen to the person before responding.

B: Any final words of wisdom as a departing senior?

O: Don’t be scared to be kind to each other.  I think, during finals, you’ll see someone crying at the library, or you’ll see someone looking upset, or hear someone screaming on the phone, and I think people’s reaction is to be afraid, like, “I don’t know what to do.”  It’s always focused on “do.”  And sometimes it’s not so much about doing a thing, but it’s just about letting the person know that someone’s watching out for them.  So if someone’s crying in the library, ask them if they’re okay.  And if they don’t want to talk or don’t want you to be there, then that’s fine, at least they know that there are people watching over them.  So basically, don’t be afraid of being kind to people…[when usually] the more someone needs help, the more scared they are to do the wrong thing.  And doing nothing is really the worst of all things you could do.  So as long as you do have good intentions, and just ask, “How can I help you?  What do you need right now?” I think that it’s a lot less likely that you’ll go wrong than just ignoring it.  So there’s that, and I’d just encourage people to try, when someone comes to you, for a second to not give them advice and just to understand—to just try and take a moment and acknowledge the feelings within you.  What is it like to feel frustrated?  What is it like to feel scared that you’re not going to pass this test?  What is it like to feel that everybody has a job except me?  Instead of being so quick to problem solve, take a second to reflect on what those feelings mean.  So don’t be scared to help people, and be wary of advice.

Good listener via Shutterstock