In a small, box-like room at the top of an unsuspecting office block in Leeds is where a handful of volunteers spent their Christmas Day this year – providing a crucial counselling service to vulnerable youngsters across the country.
A group of 14 volunteers signed up to work a shift for Childline – the 24/7 support service run by the NSPCC – at its Leeds office on a day that for most will have been one of the happiest days of the year. But for a vast amount of children, Christmas Day and the New Year period bring with them their own pressures.
Every single one of the children contacting counsellors in Leeds are doing so online – via Childline’s webchat service, through email, through the charity’s newly-launched phone app or via the website’s message boards.
Leeds is one of two of Childline’s centres nationally which is soley dedicated to online communication – a service which launched in 2010 and is now used by 75 per cent of young people contacting the charity.
Darren Worth, a supervisor at the Leeds office, said: “It has become the primary way young people contact us. Childline will always be there for those who want to use the phone but it’s crucial that we reach the young people who are harder to reach and give them a forum where they feel safe to talk about what’s been happening to them. Some of those things are very personal and very difficult.”
Compared to the rest of the year, Childline says calls around Christmas and the New Year are more likely to be around mental or emotional health concerns, family relationships, suicidal thoughts, self-harm and sexual abuse.
Darren said: “We have a lot of young people feeling very low or anxious - whether that be about Christmas or not. They may be feeling stressed about spending two weeks at home or stressed about having to care for younger siblings.
“I think sometimes young people see a lot of images about what Christmas should be like - in films, in TV adverts, on social media – and for a lot of young people, their experiences are very different. So it brings a lot of difficult feelings for them.
“It can quite often be a really difficult time for families financially and that can make a more tense home environment more challenging than it would be.
“For a lot of young people, it’s a really tough time of year and that’s why it’s so important we have volunteers who can give their time to those young people.”
One of those volunteers is Michael Anderson, 22, from Skipton, who travels into the city on the train once a week – including on Christmas Day.
“I’ve always been interested in counselling. It’s good to give something back. I find it really rewarding – I’m there for a young person at a time they need us.
“I think we’ve all had issues that we’ve had to go through ourselves and we know how difficult it is, growing up. It’s hard.
“It was challenging at the start but there’s never been a time where I’ve not enjoyed it. Each shift you don’t know what you are going to get, which is challenging. It can vary so much. But most shifts you think ‘yes, I’ve given something back’.”
Volunteers undergo 12 weeks of training before they become counsellors and every shift is overseen by a supervisor, who must be notified if a child is suspected of being at risk of harm - a situation on the rise.
According to Childline’s annual report, this year saw the highest level of counselling about suicidal thoughts and feelings ever recorded.
The charity had 2,061 counselling sessions where a young person was “actively suicidal” – a nine per cent increase on last year.
Childline is a confidential service but in circumstances where a young person is in danger, that confidentiality can be breached – a decision supervisor Darren says is “not taken lightly”.
“What a young person wants us to do is listen. Other times, it is obvious we might need to take more direct action to safeguard that young person – getting them out of a risky situation or helping to keep them safe at that moment in time.
“If we are talking to a person and we assess their life is in danger or they are likely to come to serious harm then we have ways that we can help people [such as emergency services] trace them.
“It’s not always suicide risks. Young people’s lives are really complex and sometimes it’s about helping them stay safe at a moment of real despair and other times it might be about an abusive family member or neglect.”
For the less immediate issues, Childline’s counsellors are trained not to provide the answers themselves, but to help the young person identify potential solutions, coping strategies or people they might be able to trust in their life.
Volunteer Michael said: “I think initially, for the first few sessions, I just felt I wanted to rescue them. But that’s not what we’re about. We reflect back what we hear so they can see it. You get satisfaction when you see them figure something out for themselves.”
Darren said: “Young people are always getting told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. One of the things people tell us they value about Childline is that when they come to us we will recognise that they have the capacity to make the decision themselves. It’s really about treating the young person with respect and not taking immediate control as adults.”
Volunteers at the Leeds office range in age from 19 to well into retirement and encompass professions such as parents, teachers, social workers, doctors, debt advisors, students and retail assistants. Each must commit to one three-and-a-half hour shift a week – a rule which helps the service meet demand but also ensures counsellors’ skills remain fresh.
Darren, who said the service is always recruiting, said: “Volunteers need to be able to give up their time and have the time in their lives to do that. They need to be really interested in listening to a young person’s experience as the young person feels it.” He added: “We had 14 people volunteering in Leeds on Christmas day which is an incredible achievement and a real testament to their commitment to young people.”
To talk to a counsellor online, send Childline an email or post on the message boards, visit www.childline.org.uk or alternatively, phone the charity on 0800 1111.
For more information on volunteering, visit Childline’s website.
Snapshot from counselling sessions carried out over Christmas 2016/17:
***All names and potentially identifying details have been changed to protect the identity of the child or young person. Quotes are created from real Childline contacts but are not necessarily direct quotes from the young person.***
“We had family round today for Christmas dinner and my Uncle came. He was being really nice and gave me a present. I gave him a hug to thank him and then went upstairs. A little while later he came into my room and closed the door. I asked him what he wanted but he pushed me onto the bed and made me do things that I didn’t want to do. I feel so guilty and ashamed. I don’t want to tell anyone – I never want anyone to know. He is really close to my family and if I told them they would hate me – they probably wouldn’t even believe me.”
(Girl, aged 15)
“I have had very bad suicidal thoughts tonight and I don’t know if I am safe. I don’t think I will act on my thoughts this close to Christmas but they are getting worse and I am not sure how much longer I can ignore them. I have told my boyfriend how I am feeling and I think my family are aware but they don’t know how bad it has got. When I feel this way I start to think I am not good enough and I start pushing people that love me away. I am really scared about what I might do.”
(Girl aged 18)
“I am worried about my mum because she seems quite stressed. She keeps saying sorry for not being able to afford Christmas presents. I really don’t mind but it is upsetting her. Mum is on her own now after years of domestic abuse from my dad. He was always so horrible. He doesn’t live with us anymore so it is a little safer but he sometimes turns up and shouts and hits her. He doesn’t even give my mum money for clothes or food or anything. Things are better now he has gone but I worry about my mum.”
(Girl aged 10)
“I have had a massive argument with my mum and she kicked me in the head – I have no idea what to do. I am really freaking out. She flipped for no reason and was shouting at me and threw things, hit and kicked me. She has suffered in the past with mental health issues and all my life I have been told she could relapse – I am worried that this is it! I suffer with anxiety and am getting help at school for it but this has really affected me. My parents are divorced and I don’t want to give them more reason to argue so don’t want to tell my dad. I don’t know if I should call the police or go to a friend’s house. I just have no idea what to do but I don’t feel safe being here tonight.”
(Boy aged 14)