How it feels to be a Childline counsellor during coronavirus

It’s just gone 10.30 at night and my shift is almost finished, but I decide to take one last call before I leave.

The voice at the end of the line is so faint that, at first, I’m not sure anyone is there.

After a minute of gentle coaxing, I learn that I’m speaking to a teenage boy and this is his first time calling Childline. This young person, like so many I’ve spoken to recently, is a victim of emotional abuse at the hands of his parents – abuse which he’s suffered almost daily since the coronavirus lockdown began.

Tonight, he’s reached out because he can no longer cope and has nowhere else to turn for help. 

I know first-hand how vital a resource like Childline is for young people in the UK. In the two years that I’ve volunteered as a counsellor, I’ve spoken with children going through immensely painful experiences. 

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In just one four-hour shift, I’ve helped a young girl work through complex friendship issues, supported another child as they try to come to terms with an unwanted pregnancy, advised a young girl on reporting online sexual harassment and encouraged a boy to breathe deeply as he suffered another panic attack. 

Sadly, these are some of the less harrowing contacts.

A handful of times, I’ve spoken to a young person in the middle of a suicide attempt – an experience which stays with you long after your shift has finished.

Founded in 1986 by Dame Esther Rantzen, Childline has supported more than 4million young people over the years, providing counselling through calls, online chats and emails. The service is part of the NSPCC but is comprised mainly of volunteers, who must commit to a minimum of 44 hours of training, before being deemed qualified to take contacts.

Childline counsellors are ordinarily available 24/7, allowing children aged 18 and under to access support whenever they need it.

However, the extraordinary last six weeks have put the service under greater strain than at any other period in its 34-year history. For the first time ever, we’ve been forced to suspend its night service due to a 30 per cent drop in volunteer availability, brought about by the pandemic.

Unlike other charities that provide a similar service, Childline counselling is something which can’t be done remotely due to its rigorous safeguarding and supervision. As a result, the lockdown measures have hit it particularly hard.

I can’t help but be affected by the stories of pain and hopelessness that children confide in me

The virus outbreak has affected the service’s ability to function, but the need for its services is greater than ever. On the first day that lockdown measures were introduced, we fielded 121 counselling sessions about the pandemic.

By April 15, more than 2,700 young people had been in contact because of coronavirus worries.

Almost every call I’ve taken in recent weeks relates back to coronavirus in some way – from family arguments fuelled by the intensity of lockdown, to bullying taking place over Snapchat in lieu of in-person playground politics.

In just one week, counselling sessions about physical and emotional abuse increased by 36 per cent and 31 per cent respectively, as children who ordinarily see school as an escape are now trapped in often unsafe home environments.

The rise in abuse, both on and offline, is something I’ve acutely noticed in the contacts I’ve taken. In recent weeks I’ve felt a pit in my stomach while cycling through a deserted London to get to my shift – the only times I’ve left the three-mile radius around my house since mid-March.

I can’t help but be affected by the stories of pain and hopelessness that children confide in me.

To adhere to social distancing practices, the number of counsellors per shift has been reduced and we sit far apart from one another during our meetings before and after the session. Only every other desk is now occupied, to provide more distance between counsellors, and supervisors can no longer come close to discuss contacts with us (though they remain as supportive as ever). 

Despite the physical isolation now in place in the counselling room, the sense of camaraderie, community and purpose has never been stronger.

For the many counsellors who, like me, are working from home during the crisis, Childline offers a rare opportunity to see familiar faces – beyond those we live with.

Though I’ve often ended shifts feeling both physically and emotionally drained, keeping up my volunteering commitment has been positive for my own mental health during this uncertain time.

I’m definitely not alone in feeling this way. Although Childline reported an alarming drop in capacity in the first few weeks after lockdown, volunteer hours have steadily risen since.

On Easter Monday, counsellors delivered 741 sessions – the highest number on the bank holiday in the past three years. At the beginning of my last shift, there were so many counsellors that I had to queue for a seat to become available.

Every day we are bombarded with well-meaning instructions to stay home for our own safety. But for many children, home is the least safe place they can be.

Childline is helping these young people get through this pandemic, and I’m immensely proud to play a small part in making their lives more bearable.

You can support the NSPCC’s coronavirus appeal.

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