Interview: Zeinab Khawaja, MSU Peer Support Line Coordinator

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. A recent survey by Kids Help Phone found that 1 in 5 Canadian teens alone have seriously considered committing suicide. About 230 000 Canadians over the age of 18 have contemplated suicide. Here at McMaster University, we are fortunate to have anonymous and confidential support services such as the MSU Peer Support Line. The Muse reached out to lead coordinator,  Zeinab Khawaja, for an interview. 

Interview by: Irina Sverdlichenko 

Tell us about the work that you do with the MSU Peer Support Hotline.

I’ve been with the Peer Support Line since my second year. In that time I became a volunteer listener, which entailed answering calls. In my third year, I was a volunteer coordinator, which meant that I was in charge of overseeing the work that the other volunteers were doing, creating schedules, and the like. I’m currently the lead coordinator and in that capacity, I support the volunteers. If they’ve experienced a difficult call, it can be helpful to talk to someone about their experience. I also organize events, training and promotions for the organization. Unfortunately, I’m not on the phones as often anymore.

Can you describe the type of support that volunteer listeners provide?

A lot of people think that when someone calls in, we give them advice or attempt to solve their problems. In reality, we simply listen to the callers and validate their feelings. Sometimes people just need to talk through what they’re feeling; or they might have a lot of thoughts and don’t have a lot of structure to those thoughts. It can be helpful to have a listener who can help them sort through their thoughts. It’s surprising how listening to someone and validating their feelings can have such a profound effect. We provide resources to individuals that are on and off campus.

What motivated you to start working with the Peer Support Line?

I heard about it halfway through first year. I’ve personally been through some difficult times, so I understand the importance of having an ear to listen when you’re struggling. I’ve been fortunate enough to have great friends in my life who are willing to listen to me when I need it, so I wanted to be able to listen to others. University can be such a stressful time, so I found that this was a great service for students to have. Once I became a listener, I saw the potential of the line and I wanted to help it grow. It’s still a relatively new service, but it’s growing every year as we get more calls. And it’s great that people are hearing about the organization and are willing to reach out when they need support.

How has your work with the Peer Support Line impacted your personal and professional growth?

In terms of professional growth, there are more leadership responsibilities as the lead coordinator. Volunteers look to you if they’re struggling, so this experience has taught me how to lead a team by providing support and guidance. On a more personal level, I’ve learned a lot about mental health through learning and applying proper support strategies, such as validation and normalization of feelings. I’ve come to notice how these supportive tools come into play in my daily life, and how important they are when it comes to daily interactions with friends. As a result, I’ve become a person people feel a lot more comfortable talking to, especially if they are struggling. I’ve also gained a stronger understanding of the nuances of mental health. It’s certainly not cut and dry.

What misconceptions about mental health have been dispelled through your work with the Peer Support Line?

A lot of people tend to think that mental health is a dichotomy; you either have a mental illness or you don’t. As I’ve talked to more people, and undergone more training, I’ve personally come to think of mental health as more of a continuum, and people fall somewhere on that spectrum. Some days are better than others. A common misconception that people have is that, if you don’t have a diagnosed mental illness, you’re not allowed to have bad days or be anxious or sad. But those emotions are normal aspects of the human experience, and people experience them to different extents. Also, what I’ve found through this work is that, when supporting people experiencing challenges, assuming that you can fix their problems is not necessarily the best approach to take. A lot of the time, it’s better to just listen.

What’s the most challenging aspect of the work that you do?

One of the more challenging aspects of the job is that, at times we get calls about very heavy topics. These types of calls can be quite stressful and draining. No matter how much training you have, you still wonder if you said the right thing, or whether or not it was helpful to the caller. So you have to try to get past that by accepting that there’s only so much you can do, and you did the best that you could.

Conversely, what’s the most rewarding aspect of the work?

Just knowing that we’re providing a service that is essential. Mental health is so important. In university, people get caught up in assignments, exams, and the stresses of everyday life; and they can neglect their mental health as a result. So just knowing that the Peer Support Line is an avenue through which people can find support is very rewarding. It is always incredibly gratifying to hear “Thank you for listening” at the end of a call.

What’s one thing you wish people knew about mental health?

A lot of people tend to be very supportive to those around them; their family, friends, and loved ones. But they don’t show that same level of support and sympathy toward themselves. We are our own worst critics, as they say. So I would like people to know that it’s important to be kind to yourself as well, and to cut yourself some slack once in a while.

What resources do you provide, on or off-campus, for people seeking mental health support?

There are a variety of resources, and what we provide is dependent on what the caller or chatter is looking for. On campus we have a lot of great student-run resources, including the Women and Gender Equity Network (WGEN), the Queer Students Community Centre (QSCC), Maccess – a new service that supports and builds community for disabled students and students with disabilities-, as well as the Student Health Education Centre (SHEC). The MSU has a lot of student-run services, which is great because peer support is very important. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a student instead of a professional. Off campus, there are also a lot of resources, including SACHA, which is a centre that provides support for survivors of sexual assault. There are also several phone lines that are accessible to students, including Good to Talk, which is aimed towards university students.

What would you tell someone who is struggling with their mental health?

I would say that it’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to be feeling whatever it is that you are feeling. And I’d want them to know that it does not make you weak in any way. A lot of people are struggling, but we don’t usually talk about it very often. It’s okay to seek support, whether that be through calling the peer support line, talking to a friend or family member, or seeing a mental health professional. You are not alone.

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