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Taking time to listen - becoming a mental health volunteer

David Storey
24 Jun 2019 · 4 min read

David Storey spends his day providing human advantage to our clients. Recently he’s been trying out websites that are designed to do good for humanity, with varying results. You can read his main article here.


Mental health is an area of personal relevance to me and so sites that purport to tackle the issue are of great interest. It’s possibly also the most immediate and effective of all the tasks I tried during the process of reviewing altruistic websites.

There are a growing number of sites that offer online chat rooms and counselling for those struggling with issues relating to their mental health. BetterHelp is one of the most well known and is a very effective service, but might not offer the support people are looking for in the short term.

One site taking a slightly different tack though is 7 Cups which, in addition to offering a premium service giving access to professional counsellors, also offers a free community for people to chat with volunteer ‘Listeners’. Anyone who needs to unload or vocalise their problems can use the service, and anyone who wants to help (after some training) can listen and respond.

Signing on

Signing up as a Listener is really easy, although you do have to tick the slightly unsettling disclaimer: ‘I am over 18 and I am not homicidal, suicidal or abusing anyone’.

Before being unleashed on the public, you need to go through the 7 Cups training programme – a fairly easy-going eLearning experience with a multiple-choice question at the end of each section. Some of this stuff feels like common sense but there are other things I’m glad to have learned before diving in. A few points are really emphasised such as “do not offer advice - just listen and empathise” and what to do if you fear the person is in danger of harming themselves.

After the quiz you go through a practice conversation with a bot, which again I was definitely glad to do.

Ready to advise

Finally I was given the stamp of approval and presented with a queue of people waiting to chat.

Unlike my experience with Be My Eyes, there is an immediate demand here – fifteen people are waiting in a queue. I choose the person who’s been waiting the longest and begin my first go at listening.

The interface will be familiar to anyone who’s ever used instant chat, albeit with occasional prompts from the system about positive ways to reply and reminders not to share any personal details.

I obviously won’t share the details of what was discussed but the person I was paired with definitely needed a place to unload their thoughts. We chatted for about half an hour, with myself doing little more than playing back what he is saying and asking the occasional question but by the end of our time my friend felt like he’d managed to get a little perspective on things, if not worked out the solutions yet. And he was deeply appreciative of my having taken the time to listen to him. We parted ways warmly and I disconnected with a real sense that I have helped someone have a better day than they might have otherwise.

As a Listener, there is a lot more to the site than just the chat interface. There is further training materials, support programmes and a gamification element with progress levels and achievements.

Surprise invite

I come back to the site several times over the following days and listen to more people. The urge to give advice is a lot stronger than I had expected, so I’m glad that I was instructed to avoid this. The problems I hear about cover a wide spectrum but all seem to have been helped a little by being aired without judgement.

My experience is continuing to be a positive one until I suddenly received a direct conversation request – something I didn’t even realise was an option.

I didn’t know this person. But not wanting to decline someone who might be looking for assistance I accepted and began what turned out to be a very bizarre conversation.

Unlike the other people I spoke with, this individual danced around the details. It wasn’t clear what might be troubling them. Instead they spun out a story that began on the edge of ridiculousness and continued in that direction.

I can’t say with conviction – and obviously didn’t want to risk challenging the person – but they showed all the signs of a troll. Someone using the service to waste other people’s time by pushing the most outlandish tale they can get away with.

I politely said that I have to log-off and then blocked him. It was a sad sting in an otherwise positive experience, that I feel certain I will continue to come back to in the future.

I experienced the power of technology to make real connections and provide human advantage with 7 Cups. We currently provide Childline with a similar function, enabling anonymous online chats with their experienced professionals, and it’s an area that I feel has great potential for the future.

David and AmazeRealise are also happy to listen if you’d like to talk about how to use technology for altruistic purposes. Contact us on the form below to start a conversation.

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