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Lives on the line
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The phone rings at the small office of LifeLine Shanghai, a helpline offering free confidential information and emotional support to the international community.



On the other end of the line is an expat overwhelmed by cut-throat corporate Shanghai. It has become too much to bear. He's contemplating suicide, but decides to first pick up the phone to talk to one of LifeLine volunteers.


The anonymous volunteer listens. The man agrees to face some of the unbearable elements in his life and promises to call back the next day. He never does.


Calls like these, luckily, are only a small part of what the trained listeners who volunteer at LifeLine Shanghai deal with on a daily basis. Often, calls are of a less urgent nature.


However, according to Tiffany Wandy, executive director of LifeLine Shanghai, help is indeed needed in the international community.


Last year, the helpline received approximately 220 calls a month, an increase of 100 percent annually since it was launched in March 2004.


"Living in a foreign country can be stressful for individuals and families," Wandy says. "Language barriers, unfamiliar norms, and the absence of one's usual support system can make the challenges seem overwhelming.


"Often, the results are anxiety, decreased self-confidence and emotional upheaval. What should be an exciting opportunity to experience a new environment can turn into a nightmare."


LifeLine Shanghai is the first hotline of its kind in the country. Although it's based in Shanghai, its volunteers receive calls from all over China.


The public benefit, non-profit organization is affiliated with the worldwide organization LifeLine International, which is partly funded by the World Health Organization and exists in 22 countries.


About 60 percent of the LifeLine Shanghai callers are women. The majority of the callers to the primarily English-language service hail from Europe, North America and Australia.


A total of 14 languages are spoken among the volunteers, enabling callers who are not native English speakers to reschedule a call in order to reach someone in their own language. Most of them, however, prefer to continue the call once they get started, Wandy says.


Callers come from all walks of expat life.


The youngest caller was a 6-year-old, who needed support regarding a situation with his parents. In addition to the phone service, LifeLine Shanghai also targets the international youth through their Youth Link program, in which teenagers and children become liaisons between the helpline and students of the city's international schools.


Wandy says most of the questions from the youngsters relate to boyfriend and girlfriend problems, stress, competition, pregnancies, STDs (sexually transmitted decease), eating disorders, and drinking and drug abuse.


"Basically, the problems are similar to what the teenagers would have if they had lived in their home country. But since they don't, they lack the traditional support system to go to."


Wandy says classic adult problems also include work/life balance issues, such as managing a busy travel schedule often required through expat postings, or how accompanying partners find a happy life in the new country.


Frequently, adults call about relationship problems, especially infidelity.


"LifeLine receives calls from all three parties involved, all of whom have different perspectives on the same situation.


"Sometimes, we get the spouse, who just found out that his/her partner has been unfaithful.


"Other times, we get calls from the person with whom the spouse was cheating, who either deals with guilt or the shock of discovering that his/her lover is married.


"Other times, we hear from the person who is cheating.


"Often these people suffer from guilt," Wandy says.


"We also get calls from people who are looking to move to China, as well as people who have repatriated.


"After moving back home, some people still need to clear up some China issues about their time as an expat here."


According to Wandy, the volunteers at LifeLine are warm, compassionate people with life experience. Often, they are people who struggled when they initially moved to China, who now hope to help others going through the same thing.


"The key is to be interested - and to show it," Wandy says.


"It is not only a tough experience for the volunteers. They also get something back.


"This is a very personal way to connect with a person," Wandy says.


She adds that callers, knowing that the helpline is confidential and anonymous, often tell the volunteers aspects of their life that they would otherwise never discuss with others.


The volunteers hail from a broad spectrum of nationalities. They must be fluent in English and have lived in Shanghai for at least six months.


The people at LifeLine Shanghai must be self-reflective and honest with themselves.


"If people are biased and judgmental, this is not the place for them. Volunteers need to be able to hold back judgments, because this is not about them; it is about the caller."


According to Wandy, it is important that the callers take credit, and feel responsible, for their own decisions.


"Even if it was a bad decision, hopefully people learn from it. People need to come to their own conclusions."


LifeLine Shanghai is known for a client-centered approach, based on theories of Carl Rogers. According to Wandy, this works well with help hotlines. It is nondirective, so clients access their own internal resources.


"The idea is that every person has the answer within themselves."


Before hitting the phones, volunteers undergo extensive training, and they always have two supervisors - practicing psychologists - they can call.


Volunteers also meet for monthly discussion groups to debrief and learn from each other. Here, they share experiences about the calls that went really well or where they struggled.


"The hardest calls are often the ones that hit close to home," Wandy explains about volunteers who need to put personal preferences aside. This holds true even if they, like the caller, just had problems with the death of a parent or feel guilty about not going home for Christmas.


"Everybody wants to solve problems, but that is not what we are here for."


Some of the most distressing calls include callers who hang up during a conversation.


"Sometimes volunteers have a crying caller on the line all of a sudden hang up after exclaiming 'he came back!'."


As a helpline, LifeLine rarely provides closure for volunteers on the issues they discuss with callers.


"The suicidal man who didn't call back as promised actually didn't go ahead with it. Several months after the call, he rang LifeLine again, and we found out that he's alive and still living in the city."


Such cases make the volunteer gig seem as if it might be too tough to handle, but Wandy says that typically, volunteers only leave Lifeline when they leave the country.


Shanghai was Wandy's second international posting - her first was St Petersburg, Russia - but it was her first time in Asia. But unlike many of those she helps through the hotline, she loved the city from the get-go.


In fact, she hadn't planned on moving there. She came to visit a friend and never left.


"I enjoy giving back to the community," Wandy says. "It is nice to feel you are making a difference."


(China Daily by Ida Relsted February 18, 2008)


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