Jeremy Luk, alumni Distress Centre volunteer and registered psychologist. Photo by @rockywanders
Growing up, I was always a curious child who was fascinated by the lives of others and in understanding how the human brain worked, so it only seemed natural for me to explore a path in the area of psychology. My first year at the University of Calgary was a great introduction into how diverse the field truly was. I had no idea whether I wanted to pursue experience in the fields of forensics, sports, counselling, clinical, or research psychology, and found myself stretching across all the different areas that I could get my hands on.
Even after I graduated from the program, I remained uncertain of which direction I wanted to work towards, and decided that the best way for me to figure that out was through direct practice.
I had always enjoyed working with families and children with special needs, so I applied for a position at the Society for Treatment of Autism, which I spent the next two and a half years developing both skills and a renewed sense of passion for helping others. It was such an inspirational experience to see the growth that each family underwent, and to recognize how much impact a single person can make. It was at the encouragement of both my supervisor and client’s family members that I decided to continue working towards becoming a registered psychologist.
Now that I knew what I wanted to do, I realized that I had no idea where to start, and self-doubt began to creep into my thoughts. What am I supposed to say to people who are coming in to share their stories? How am I supposed to give advice and tell people what to do? Am I supposed to talk about suicide, or will that give people ideas? These were only some of the questions that I repeatedly asked myself with no real idea of how to answer them, so I decided to turn to the one source that I had always counted on: Google.
After a quick look at a handful of online forums regarding frequently asked questions about becoming a psychologist, I was able to figure out that one of the best experiences of practice was through volunteering on a distress line. Google pulled through again, and I soon found myself looking through the website of Calgary’s own Distress Centre.
As I navigated the website, I felt unsure about how I would even begin approaching the centre about creating any positions for me to volunteer or become involved, so I was encouraged by the fact that there was an organized section for volunteering on the crisis line, which made it easy to get more information about the program, and even easier to apply for the next available training date.
One thing that I have always appreciated about Distress Centre’s training program is how comprehensive and in-depth it was. At first, a three-week program seemed overwhelming to me, but each training module was broken down so that I was able to understand and practice the material at an effective pace. I enjoyed being able to see other individuals who were going through the training at the same time as I was, and it was helpful for us to be able to share our experiences and learn together.
It was reassuring to me that Distress Centre appeared to be putting our development as a priority by making sure that we weren’t rushing through the material and that we felt supported each step of the way.
The impact of volunteering at Distress Centre
After volunteering on the phone lines, I felt confident to carry the skills that I had developed at Distress Centre into a graduate program for counselling psychology.
Even in my first course of the program, I was already able to see what a difference my experience had made in terms of preparing me for the field of counselling. I was able to risk assess and discuss issues concerning suicidality and self-harm in a confident manner, whereas some of my peers were hesitant to approach these topics. I could refer clients to specific resources around the city that I was familiar with through my time on the phone lines, and also had a list of self-care suggestions that I had developed through numerous calls.
I also learned quickly how to help support others without telling them what to do or to give advice (a lesson that is trickier to practice in my personal life). I can easily say that without my time at Distress Centre, I would have struggled to juggle these lessons on top of all my other graduate school responsibilities, and that volunteering there has prepared me to become the practitioner that I am today.
I encourage anyone who is interested in the areas of counselling, psychology, or social work to check out Distress Centre Calgary as a way to learn not only more about the field, but about themselves as they find who they are on the phone lines, helping others in times of distress.
Textbooks and courses may be able to explain all the theories and concepts in the world, but I would argue that nothing compares to the experience of supporting someone through a hard time, having someone thank you for listening to them, hearing how a phone call can have such a significant impact on someone’s life, or the feeling of realizing that a single individual has the power to make a world of difference.