For the mental health charity Aware, its Support Line service has been a source of help for those impacted by depression, bipolar disorder and other mood-related conditions. But when Covid-19 forced its office to close, it needed a way to enable its 115 trained volunteers to take calls securely while volunteering from home.
Talking openly about mental health has never been more important, and there’s no longer a stigma attached to it. On the other side of the conversation, helping people who experience depression and bipolar disorder, or supporting their loved ones, requires empathy and understanding. Since 1985, Aware has provided this support, free of charge, to those over the age of 18 who need it.
A core part of the mental health charity’s service is its Support Line, manned by trained volunteers working in three-hour shifts from 10am to 10pm every single day. “Our Support Line is very busy, not just for onceoff callers but people who need it regularly. In 2019 we answered over 20,000 calls and expect to reach 30,000 this year. So, continuity of service is vitally important,” explains Maria Walsh Healy, Support Line Manager with Aware.
Traditionally, this service operated from Aware’s headquarters on Leeson Street. Aware has a careful recruitment process to ensure its volunteers are the right fit for the service, and it gives them the skills to be able to answer calls and provide support in a clinically appropriate way. “Our volunteers use non-directive language and are predominantly there to listen, provide understanding, and talk through options or helpful resources that might be available to the person at that time,” says Maria. Just as importantly, Leeson Street was where volunteers could avail of support from each other or Aware staff if a call has affected or distressed them.
But when the Coronavirus outbreak happened, the much-needed service risked stopping altogether when it was needed most.
Like many other organisations, Aware felt it prudent to close its offices to abide by Covid-19 health and safety recommendations andprotect volunteers and staff. As its other support services are available online or delivered from external venues, the closure affected the Support Line service. This was a significant challenge beyond the logistics of asking over 100 volunteers to work from home. The nature of calls to the Support Line means that confidentiality is essential. Aware couldn’t just ask volunteers to use their personal mobiles or off-the-shelf conferencing apps.
Keen to find a way to keep the Support Line open even as it was impossible to be physically present in the Leeson Street office, Awarecontacted Natasha Beegan, its account manager at Three, to look at options. Natasha proposed 3Connect, Three’s cloud-based telephonysystem. The service is encrypted and anonymous, protecting the privacy of both callers and volunteers. 3Connect routes calls over the internet via an app and automatically diverts calls to the volunteers who are logged into the app for their three-hour shift.
Aware was able to keep its vital service going with no interruption: a lifeline at a critical moment. Three swiftly set up the account and enabled the Service Manager in Aware to train, test and pilot the system. Within three days the app was live, and volunteers were taking calls from home no matter where they were based. As well as providing support to those experiencing depression, it also helped people experiencingincreased anxiety because of the Coronavirus pandemic, and it could support them when they were unable to access clinical services in person. “From March to July, we answered 68 per cent more calls than during the same period in 2019, with significant peaks in April, May and July of over 80 per cent. Thanks to the implementation of 3Connect, we were able to answer almost 15,000 calls in an 18 week period, providing information, understanding and support when people needed it most,” says Maria.
Like all non-profit groups, Aware needs to look for cost efficiencies where it can. It only receives around 25 per cent of its annual budget through State funding, and so relies heavily on the support of corporate organisations and communities in order to provide its free services. As businesses and individuals alike face an uncertain financial future, it’s more important than ever for Aware to look for cost efficiences where it can. 3Connect’s fixed cost per user enables more accurate financial planning.
Because 3Connect enables secure remote working, Aware can now widen its net and work with volunteers from all over Ireland. Its recruitment campaign for new volunteers in April/May received 900 applications. “We can now open it up to a new pool of people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to consider volunteering for the Support Line unless they lived in the greater Dublin area. This will be hugely positive in terms of the number of volunteers we can recruit and therefore the number of calls we can answer,” says Maria.
Clinical governance and ongoing support for volunteers is really important to Aware. 3Connect’s call recording feature captures up to 100 hours of calls, allowing Aware to monitor interactions effectively and provide rapid feedback to volunteers so the service always meets the highest standards. “The 3Connect model incorporates tools that help ensure our ongoing training and development needs are met, protecting both our service and the volunteers who deliver that service,” says Maria.