Apprentices Making a Difference Series: The Power of Listening

May 18, 2020

Please be aware topics discussed in this blog may be sensitive or triggering. 

An interview with WhiteHat Education Partnerships Associate and Project Management Apprentice, Akeem, and Community Manager, Siobhan Randell, as part of our Apprentices Making a Difference Series. 

Akeem is 24 years old and from East London, growing up between Waltham Forest and Hackney. He is completing his Level 4 Project Management Apprenticeship within the Education and Youth Outreach Team at WhiteHat as the Education Partnerships Associate. After trying out university and deciding it was not for him, Akeem got a job as a pharmacy dispenser in Asda before pursuing the apprenticeship route. He was not sure what he wanted to do but he knew he wanted to make a difference. Akeem has been volunteering for the Samaritans in his spare time for the last 2.5 years.

Akeem representing WhiteHat in parliament for
National Apprenticeship Week 2020

Mental Health Awareness Week feels like an opportune time to catch up with you about your volunteering journey with the Samaritans. How did you get started?

I was actually approached by a fundraiser for the Samaritans when I was at the train station back in October 2017. We got chatting about what the Samaritans do and how their listening service can prevent suicide. This seemed amazing to me and I thought, I’ve got the skills to be a listener, so I completed the application form and went from there.

Listening to people in distress might be a daunting suggestion for many people. What was the process like to get you ready for your volunteer role?

The process begins with a DBS check, references, and interview. Once you’ve been selected there’s intensive training and lots of support before you’re taking calls on your own. The training is once a week for 9 months. You are assigned a mentor and practice many scenarios and situations including a suicide in progress or attempting suicide call which are the most difficult.

What is a typical volunteering shift at the Samaritans like post-training?

I attend the local Samaritan office in Leyton one evening a week. I’m actually still going in despite Covid-19 because it’s a critical service and people really need our support, however, we’ve implemented social distancing and we’re only running the telephone support service (usually we would have face-to-face drop-ins as well). We begin with a briefing from the shift leader where we learn about any current issues that have spiked, for example at the moment coronavirus phobia, concerns about finances, redundancy and domestic abuse are prevalent. We reflect on the previous week and then I sit at my desk and begin to answer calls. I can answer anywhere between 1 and 20 calls depending on how much time the individual needs. I’ve also been promoted to Deputy Director of Caller Support which means I have additional responsibility for flagging any misuse of the service to the London Caller Support Team.

What have you learnt about the issue of mental health?

It affects anyone and everyone. Prior to this role I thought of mental health as something clinical or diagnosed but it affects everyone, and you would never be able to look at someone and know. Any person, from any background in any job, can struggle with severe mental health challenges. There are also seasonal changes to be aware of, in summer there are fewer suicides, after Christmas, there’s an increase in family breakdowns, in January an increase in financial worries and big events lead to surges in calls too, like the tragic passing of Caroline Flack.

You have been very successful in your apprenticeship so far, getting great feedback on your assignments in addition to winning ‘values champion’ for WhiteHat. How do you feel volunteering has helped you develop your skills?

I’ve always been someone in a group of friends who is there for other people, however, having this formal training with the Samaritans and putting it into practice over the last 2.5 years means I am able to build positive relationships with people of all ages and backgrounds. This is crucial to my role where I am coordinating with many different stakeholders. I have grown in empathy which again helps with relationship building. Also, I am attentive to what colleagues are saying in meetings and briefings which means I never miss important information!

What advice would you give to other apprentices who want to be more supportive of colleagues and friends who are struggling with mental health, or even to those who want to volunteer?

Regularly check in with friends and colleagues and ask them ‘would you like to talk about it?’ but also respect the person's decision. The Samaritans is a listening service, we may signpost, but we do not give advice. Naturally, you might want to advise your colleagues, family and friends but be careful not to pursue your own agenda if you do. If you are worried about someone there is a range of support and resources available from charities like Samaritans, Mind and Heads Together. They will all have their own volunteering opportunities so just check the websites to apply. Finally, always remember that everyone has light in them if you care enough to see it.

WhiteHat Community Members can find out more about volunteering, including inspirational stories and opportunities, by joining the Apprentices Making a Difference group on the Community Hub.

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