Shanghai can be fun, exciting, and rewarding. Sometimes. Other days, it's a struggle. It's like a jungle sometimes, especially when you're 7000 miles from home and might not have anyone to talk to. But speaking to someone about your problems can really help overcome them, and that's the idea behind Lifeline Shanghai, a volunteer-run, non-profit English-language crisis line.
What Is Lifeline?
Lifeline is a support hotline that takes calls from anyone (anyone that speaks English, that is), about anything. They answer the phone from 10am-10pm, 365 days a year. Some people call to find directions to the hospital; others call when they're out on the ledge (very rare, thankfully). When they get a call, they provide emotional support with an emphasis on confidential, nonjudgmental listening. They're not therapists, they're not counselors; they're more like guides, if anything. They deal with a lot of issues that affect expats disproportionately, like adjustment, homesickness, culture shock, and loneliness.
A small group of expats, including a doctor, a nurse, and a psychologist, started Lifelife Shanghai back in 2004, a time when the city had even fewer mental health resources for expats. They're affiliated with the NGO Lifeline International, a subsidiary of Lifeline Australia, which was originally started by Reverend Sir Alan Walker in Sydney back in 1963 (the Shanghai chapter is not a religious organization, in case you're wondering).
Lifeline's funding comes from consulates, international schools, and chambers of commerce, with whom they run outreach programs with. Their office is donated by the Shanghai Centre, so they have few costs. There's no donate button on their website. No one is making money from this.
Who's Answering The Phone?
Lifeline has 57 volunteers, who come from all over the world. Before getting on the phone, volunteers have to go through an interview process and successfully complete a three-day training program designed by a psychiatric nurse. Like most crisis lines, Lifeline Shanghai's training program teaches volunteers how to talk people away from suicidal thoughts and overcome emotional distress.
Life or death calls are rare, but they do happen. However, most calls are for less immediate problems. Roughly 40% of Lifeline's calls are about relationships, like trouble with a partner, spouse, or family member. These largely come from female callers. Males often call about alcohol and substance abuse, and both genders call about financial and workplace distress.
One volunteer is Stephen Goan, a former policeman from Ireland who came to China with his wife several years ago. Now he's completing a masters in health psychology, and he believes that problems are more difficult to deal with as an expat in Shanghai than back home.
"The underlying problem is that a lot of people don't have the same social support networks that they would normally rely on in their own country. The social landscape is always shifting, always changing. Six months go by, there's another friend going away; a year, another friend going. There's a sense of being left behind. You're thousands of miles away from your parents, brothers, sisters, family friends -- whatever you've got. So whatever the issue is, it's just magnified more by the fact you don't have the social support you normally have." -- Stephen Goan, Volunteer
So that's the point of Lifeline – you have someone you can call, even without a traditional support network. Volunteers will often point callers toward other resources, like social groups to make friends, or groups like Alcoholics Anonymous to get support.
What's A Typical Call Like?
Lifeline receives 120-150 calls a month (roughly 4-5 calls a day) and the calls average out to 28 minutes each. Calls are confidential and not recorded – they take this really seriously. Though they only accept calls in English, they estimate 30% of callers are Chinese.
Lifeline's volunteers are trained to help you get somewhere emotionally with your call. They start by listening, then help identify possible solutions. However, they never give specific advice or tell you what you should do. Instead, they help you find the solutions that are likely in front of you.
"If you verbalize [your problem] and the person you are talking to is not judging you, is not telling you what to do, then quite often, not only does it release the weight of the situation, it also helps clear your mind and see the situation." -- Allan McDean, Advisory Board Chairman
How You Can Get Involved
Lifeline holds two training sessions every year, and the next one happens in October. To join, you can download the volunteer form from their website and email it to email@example.com. The three-day training program -- which does not accept everyone -- costs 800rmb per person. Why should people pay to volunteer? Lifeline's volunteer rep Alison Johnson says the fee is cheap for a three-day training program that teaches you valuable skills. In addition, the fee filters out candidates that aren't serious about the work.
But before you sign up, you should understand that volunteering for Lifeline can be difficult and emotionally tolling. You're going to hear some intense stories, and you might not be able to help as much as you'd like. Alison gives an example of taking a call about domestic abuse in a country with no shelters and few resources for victims.
"It's a case of thinking... 'Are there any friends this person can go and stay with? How can this person get out of this situation?' If they know their partner is always violent after going out drinking, well maybe it's not a good idea to have an argument in the kitchen where there's knives and things like that. But actually it's very difficult and it's one of the most difficult situations [for us] to take calls like that." -- Alison Johnson, Volunteer Rep
But more often than not, volunteers can help the people who call, and for Allan, Steve, and Alison, it's a meaningful and worthwhile experience.
Everyone feels down (or confused, or enraged, or manic, or lonely...) sometimes. Maybe Lifeline isn't a service you'll use today, but if you ever need it, there's someone in their call center who's willing to listen and help you out.