How often do you feel listened to? Truly listened to. It might be over dinner with your spouse or a phone call with Mum. Maybe it is only every so often, speaking with a friend over coffee. Perhaps it’s every weekend when you go to church or a community group.
What if you never had someone sit down and give you their full attention? What if you went through the first 30 years of your life without anyone sitting down to hear about your life. How isolating would that feel? That question only feels isolating because I have experienced the other side. I have been listened to. I know the joy to talk about something I am passionate about and having the person across from me cry, laugh and feel with me.
During the winter, Glasgow City Mission runs an Overnight Welcome Centre (OWC). For the past four years, Healing for the Heart has partnered with the OWC to deliver a listening service showing love through listening. This year, I have spent the past four months helping as that listener. I am the fundraiser for Healing for the Heart, but I am also working towards becoming a qualified counsellor in my career.
I studied in the west end of Glasgow and lived there for four years. When I was offered the role of a mental health support worker, my initial thought was around my professional development. I recognised that working in the OWC would be out of my comfort zone. I wanted to help and give my time and skills to the job, and I wanted to value people and give them a listening ear, but I saw it as serving my career.
The way I looked at the job changed quickly from focusing on professional development to how I could help change a life in two hours?
On my second shift, I arrived at the OWC and I was put in front of a young woman, Charlotte*, who had been found self-harming with a shard of glass in her hand. The staff had brought her downstairs to the lunchroom to keep an eye on her. Charlotte’s pain was visceral, and any idea that I was here for professional development vanished. As she spoke to me, albeit reluctantly, I was overcome by her pain. I only met Charlotte once, and I am unsure how helpful I was. Still, it became clear that my role as the mental health support focused on changing real lives by meeting people in the emotional distress they were living in and offering them a way to release the pressure.
The role of mental health support is to create a safe space with no judgement. Some people arrived at the OWC after domestic conflicts. Stephen* had been kicked out of his home. His partner had emotionally and physically abused him. Having arrived at the OWC the night before I met him, he was confused and distraught. I sat with him for an hour and a half as he poured his heart out to me. Walking away after talking to me, he told me how helpful I had been. I distinctly remember saying less than three sentences during my time with Stephen. Listening is powerful. It creates a space to be filled. Stephen needed someone to come alongside him in the chaos and listen.
I met and spoke with many asylum seekers. Some had run away for political safety. Others had run away from oppressive communities threatening their lives. I was told about endless sacrifices that people had made, leaving behind their families, communities, homes. They ended up in the OWC after months of travelling. One story that particularly stood out to me was from Josef*, who had drowned crossing the English Channel and was resuscitated by the British police. Josef risked everything, including his life, to escape the danger and suffering in his home country. For Josef, it was difficult for people to take the amount of time needed to listen to him because of the language barrier. A conversation with Josef would take twice as long because of needing to use a translator. Having someone with two hours available was what Josef needed to tell his story and speak about the grief of leaving behind family and nearly losing his life.
For some of these people, I was the first person they had ever told their story to. And I can’t count how many times I was thanked or said that I was trustworthy. Or how often people told me they felt better after unloading what was on their minds. My role as the listener was to make people feel safe. To allow them to open up and share their feelings. To help them not bottle everything up.
As emotional support, I have no obligation for the practical. In fact, I would be pretty useless at it. But I have permission to sit down, take 2 hours and give the guests my undivided attention without needing to take notes or organise anything administrative. It means I am focused on them. I can value them and love them by listening well without any distractions.
By partnering we help Glasgow City Mission’s staff. The staff are practical helpers for the immediate issues, to care for and love the guests in the now. This partnership allows more time for the staff to focus on what they have been brought in to do, which helps the guests be holistically supported in the most efficient way possible. Having someone on hand to listen allows the staff to do their jobs better.
The partnership between Glasgow City Mission and Healing for the Heart offers an avenue to access our other services. Healing for the Heart is a mental health and wellbeing network offering one-to-one counselling, children’s work, group work, addiction recovery groups and many more community development groups. Working together in the OWC is an extension of our vision and values. We believe in healing, and we expect transformation. We know that having someone sit across from you and wholly value you can be a positive experience that begins a transformation. This is what we seek in every aspect of our services. From counselling to community development to training organisations, we want to help people grow their self-awareness self-esteem and transform their lives by understanding their relationships with themselves and others.
* The names in this article have been changed.