Protecting yourself from harm in emergency housing: an essential guide

Emergency housing is accommodation that is provided to people who are homeless and seen as in being priority need (in the UK). The idea is to house you for a temporary period whilst you wait for more permanent housing to become available.

You can read more about how emergency housing is allocated here.

I spent nearly two years in emergency housing.

The first couple of months was in what was called a bed and breakfast (B’n’B), though it was really a bedsit in a converted, disused pub (definitely no breakfast!). The rest of the time, I was in a studio flat in a large, damp, old Victorian house converted into flats. Both were in different towns at least 40 minutes from anywhere I was familiar with, and I didn’t know anyone at all in those towns.

If you are being housed in emergency accommodation, you are vulnerable, even if you do not think of yourself that way. You can easily become the target of coercion, abuse, or even violence.

You are meant to be safe from harm in this type of accommodation, but this is unfortunately not always the reality, due to a number of unstable and/or distressed people being housed in one place.

I am writing this in the hope it might help someone falling into some of the many traps that can present themselves.

It is up to you if you choose to follow my advice, of course, but this is what I learned (often the hard way) through my own experiences.

I don’t want to make anyone feel overly afraid or paranoid: I simply want to encourage healthy vigilance and awareness.

Other Residents

– Be discerning about who you make friends with

Everyone has their own reasons for being housed in emergency accommodation.

There were a mix of people in my building: single mothers with young children, people with mental health difficulties, and people with drug and alcohol issues, or a combination of those.

Most people seen as being in priority need are vulnerable and that can create a hotbed of issues and emotions in one building, particularly when drugs and/or alcohol are a factor.

I found the best way to act around my fellow residents was to be friendly when I bumped into them in the hallway or in the town, but to not stop and chat. I was never rude: I was always pleasant, but I made it obvious I wanted to keep myself to myself. As long as you’re not rude, people tend to accept that’s just how you are.

After some time, I got to learn who it was okay to stop and talk to a little more. Eventually I made friends with one of the single mums, and we would go for walks into town together.

You may feel you want to get friendly with the other people who live there, particularly if you don’t know anyone else in the area. I would recommend that you get to know people what the people are like slowly over a period of months before you do this, and sometimes it might be best avoided altogether.

You don’t want to end up in a situation where you feel coerced to do things for people, where you are harassed and not left alone, where you feel unsafe, or where you will come to the negative attention of the housing association. When this is going on where you live, you can’t get away from it without forfeiting your right to accommodation.

Being discerning can be tough when you are vulnerable, but it is important to safeguard yourself from getting drawn into other people’s issues or into volatile situations, particularly if there are drugs or alcohol involved.

– Be selective about what you tell others

It is best to avoid giving out any personal information, or details about your personal circumstances. Definitely do not give away any information about possessions you have that might be valuable, or anything to do with money, which benefits you get, how much you have, when you are going to get some etc. Just play dumb and say you can’t remember.

You may also want to be careful about sharing where you live with people who don’t live there either. Often people in the town will know the address as where vulnerable people live and may use it to their advantage. I had a stalker from the town at one point, who wouldn’t go away and once managed to get into the building due to my neighbour letting him in. Luckily, I was out that evening. I had to report him to the police for harassment.

– Keep your door locked

Even if you are just going out to the bin and will be minutes: lock it behind you. Don’t leave anything in the communal areas as it is at risk of being stolen.

– Don’t lend or give out possessions

If you lend things, be prepared for them not to be returned. Also be wary of giving out things like cigarettes, unless you are sure you can trust the person not to hound you from then on. My neighbour would drunkenly bang on certain people’s doors in the middle of the night demanding tobacco.

Don’t allow yourself to be indebted to anyone.

– Don’t invite other residents into your flat

There are some people who will be very interested to see what you have in there. Keep valuables away from windows, and keep the curtains drawn in rooms where you can easily see in.

– Always lock your door at night

I used to keep my door locked even during the day when I was in there. Always make sure your keys are nearby, so you can escape in case of a fire.

Residents’ Visitors

– Avoid answering the main door unless you are expecting someone

Our front doorbell would ring all the time, and because I was in the front ground floor flat, I ended up getting lumbered with opening it all the time.

I opened the door on two separate occasions to some men wanting to find people who lived here due to drug debts or thefts in the town. I just played dumb and said I didn’t know because I didn’t want to be involved. I was lucky that no one forced their way past me, as they easily could have if they wanted to.

– Don’t leave your own door propped open when you are inside your flat

Try not to let visitors see inside your flat, even just a quick glance. Visitors are complete unknowns because the housing association will not even know who they are, and they will know that you are an easy target.

– If there is an incident, keep your involvement to the minimum (where you can)

Incidents can happen a lot in this kind of accommodation: drunken fights, anti-social behaviour, criminal damage, domestic abuse, thefts, overdoses etc.

You may have to make judgement calls about whether to intervene if an incident occurs in the communal areas. I’d say that most of the time it is best not to get involved in anything and to stay in your room with the door locked. You may decide to call the police, and by all means do. It might be best to do this discretely, if possible.

One evening, a female neighbour was being attacked in the hallway by one of her male visitors. She was banging on my door screaming to be let into my room so she could escape him. It was a really scary situation.

I had already called the police, but then had to decide whether to let her into my flat to safety and risk him coming into my room too, or to keep my door locked and let him keep attacking her. I eventually let her in. Luckily, he didn’t follow her in, and I locked the door behind her. The police arrived minutes later and arrested him. It is the only time I let someone into my room.

I can’t tell you what to do if something like this happens, as every situation is different, and it is up to you to make judgements in the moment. I exposed myself to violence when I opened the door for her, and although I feel now that I made the right decision in that particular moment, it could easily have played out very differently and I could have been hurt too.

‘Official’ Visitors

Be aware of people who come into your flat to perform maintenance or work duties, even if they are from an official company or service. Most will be friendly and professional and there will be no issue, but they will know that you are vulnerable because of where you live, and some may see if they can use that to their advantage.

If any maintenance person uses your contact details to send you private messages, they have crossed a line, and you should report them to the company they work for, if you feel safe enough to do that. At the very least, they are breaking data confidentiality if they are using your name or number to add you on Facebook/Snapchat/any other social media, or to text or call you.

Block them. Don’t let them flatter you into engaging with them. Anyone who solicits you, knowing that you are living somewhere for vulnerable people, is not the sort of person you want to respond to or meet up with.

This includes the POLICE. I am sad to have to say this, but my friend in the accommodation was contacted by a (married) police officer who made a series of advances towards her, after he had attended an incident there. She complained and he was taken to a tribunal, which she had to give evidence at and found a very distressing experience. He ended up resigning.

That this happens at all is so wrong and incredibly inappropriate, but it does happen. Please be aware of everyone who is in your space, no matter who they are.

Keep any texts or messages and make written notes of anything not stored by your phone, whether you are planning to complain or not – you may change your mind down the line and decide you want to. If you have a support worker or professional who works with you, it may be a good idea to mention to them anything untoward that happens, if you feel able to trust them.

Housing Staff

It is a sad state of affairs that I need to include warnings about the housing staff themselves, but unfortunately it is a reality.

I was bullied by individual members of housing staff in both of the places I lived at. When I stood up for myself, they used their position of power over me to be further abusive and to threaten me with the loss of my accommodation.

Threats to have you ‘thrown out’ if you do not comply are NOT ACCEPTABLE. I’m not talking about official warnings from the housing organisation if you are breaking rules. I’m talking about individual staff members making off the record threats in order to wield their own personal power over you when you try to stand up for yourself.

This is abuse and it sadly happens more than you think.

I have been spoken to like shit over the phone by housing officers, too, as was my one friend in there. The general impression we got was that they saw people who lived in this type of housing as low life scum who should be treated accordingly.

This is not acceptable!

Please do not think that because you are in emergency housing that you do not deserve to be treated with humanity and dignity.

You are not a second-class citizen. You have the same rights to fair treatment as everybody else.

– Keep notes

You can do this on paper or in a notepad app on your phone. Keep records of any interactions where you are not treated unfairly or badly. Include dates, times, and details of what was said both by you and them. If it keeps happening, having a timeline and ongoing record of the incidences will really help if you decide to report it.

I understand if you don’t want to report anything while you live there, but if you collect notes, you can complain about them once you leave. Even if it is too late by then for the complaint to benefit you, if every person these people bullied made an official complaint about them, a pattern would emerge that their organisation/the council wouldn’t be able to ignore.

If you have a social worker, care co-ordinator, community nurse, or any other supportive person who works with you who is not part of the council or housing association, it can be a good idea to share with them about any bullying or abuse that is happening, particularly if you trust them.

– Try to stay as calm and assertive as you can

Try not to get abusive back, no matter how upset or angry you are. Your true power isn’t in giving them crap back, but in making a record of how you are being treated, and then getting support to challenge them.

Don’t stoop to their level – you are better than that, and you are more likely to get somewhere by taking the higher ground, getting support, and going through official channels.

I have included contact details of some really helpful charities at the bottom of this article.

Housing Services

The services that run the emergency housing, both the council and the housing association, have a lot of power over you, and they are not always fair. This relative position of powerlessness that you are in is another way that you are vulnerable.

There are a couple of really important tips I want to share to help you retain your power as much as possible.

– Make a photographic record immediately after getting the keys

Despite me leaving the flat cleaner than when I went in, and the woman I handed the key back to saying verbally that it was all fine, I was sent an invoice a year (!) down the line saying I had not cleaned properly and demanding hundreds of pounds in compensation.

Luckily, I had proof, and they had no choice but to waive the invoice in the end. I still have no idea why this happened suddenly a year after I had left – no explanation was ever given to me by them, despite me requesting one.

When you move into your room or flat, the first thing you should do is take photos or video of the whole place – floors, ceilings, walls, all appliances, all the bathroom and kitchen amenities like the toilet, bath, sinks, cupboards. The more you photograph the better. Make sure you include any already-damaged areas or items (a common one is kick/punch holes in internal doors).

You want there to be a record of how the flat looked when you moved in, so they cannot charge you later for damage that was there before you arrived.

Save these photos/video – your phone should automatically record the date of your moving-in day on them. Do it as soon as you get the keys and ideally before you’ve moved any of your things in.

Do exactly the same when you move out, on the actual day you move out, after you have cleaned and emptied the place of your stuff, and ideally just before you hand the keys back. Your phone should record your moving-out date on the photos.

When you move out, the important thing is to show how clean you have left it. Clean it well, and then get close up evidence of how clean it is!

Keep all of these photos and videos for up to a couple of years after you move out. As I say above, I was challenged on how I left things a YEAR after I had moved out, so it is best to hold onto those pictures as long as you can. If you need them off your phone, email them to yourself, or download them onto a memory stick or a laptop etc, if you have access to one, or perhaps to a friend’s one.

You might even ask the person who is collecting the keys from you to put in writing that the flat was fine when you left it, rather than just giving a verbal okay. They might refuse if it isn’t their policy, but it could be worth asking.

– Stick to the rules!

Avoid bringing drama or issues to the accommodation, because those in charge of it have a lot of power over you and can make your life very difficult. They can keep you there longer by temporarily removing your option to move into more permanent housing, and they can evict you. If you are evicted, it can make it harder for you to be housed again in future and you could end upon the streets.

You definitely don’t need any extra stress to worry about! Protect yourself from this by playing by the rules of the accommodation as much as possible.

Remember, your situation is temporary (even if it feels like forever) and eventually you will be housed in a place of your own, where you will feel much safer and more stable, and you won’t need to follow as many rules.

Where to go for help and support

If you need help with any of what I have discussed here, I recommend you:

  • Speak to your support worker, social worker, or any impartial professional who knows you and who you feel you can trust.
  • Speak to the housing association or the council, depending on what the situation is. Be careful as they may close ranks – it might be best to get the support of one of the below organisations first.

Here are some very good, impartial organisations you can go to for advice and support:

You used to be able to walk into a branch near you, but due to current coronavirus restrictions, this has been moved to telephone support.

Their website has lots of information to read, plus numbers to call and details of web chat etc.

Their contact information page is here.

They have a free national helpline you can call to speak to an adviser, or you can find information on their website that may be of help.

Both are a good place to start and they will be able to signpost you onwards if you need more specific support. They will have the most up-to-date information available.

And finally…

Of course, people will have different experiences in emergency accommodation, and I do hope yours is better than mine.

I still think it is important to be aware of possible issues that can arise.

Stay aware, maintain boundaries, and keep yourself to yourself as much as you can: those are probably the best bits of advice I can give.

Record everything and keep those records for a couple of years.

Get help from people or organisations that are impartial and that can support you. You don’t have to go through anything alone.

You will get through this and it doesn’t last forever, even if it feels like it at the time.

What is it like to live with Visual Snow Syndrome?

Living with visual snow is not just about dealing with the symptoms. It is also about trying to get people to care or understand when your symptoms are 100% subjective and disbelieved by almost all the professionals you see.

This article is my personal account of living with Visual Snow Syndrome. It is split into three sections: When I realised something was wrong, Trying to get help, and Living with it.

When I realised something was wrong:

Everything began when I looked at the carpet one day and there were lots of black dots dancing all over it, like the static on an old TV screen. It was a bit strange, but I didn’t think too much of it at the time.

But it didn’t go away. Even weeks later, every time I looked at the carpet, I would see these dots.

Then when I looked at the walls, the dots were there too, but in pink and green. I began to notice vague bands of shadow all over the walls. It looked like there were grubby, grey, rectangular patches all over them.

Again, I carried on without giving much thought to it.

It was when I was watching the darts on TV a few months later, that I realised something was definitely not right.

When I looked at the dartboard on the TV and then I looked away, I could still see it in front of my eyes. I would look at the TV and then look at the wall next to it, and there would be a ghostly image of the dartboard for about 10 seconds, before it slowly faded away.

10 seconds sounds quick, but when you think that your vision is normally instant, as you look from one thing to another, 10 seconds is a long time for an object to remain.

The more I noticed it happening, the more it bugged me. It happened with other things on the TV, too. When I watched the news and looked away, and I could still see the newsreader and their desk in front of my eyes.

It wasn’t an exact image, with colour, but an inverted, negative image in black and white, like this:

The TV became more and more difficult to look at, and I avoided watching it. But it wasn’t just the TV that was causing the images. When I looked at pictures on the wall, or pieces of furniture, they’d still be there when I looked away.

I began to notice mini flashes of light going off in front of my eyes, like those you get if you stare at a naked lightbulb and look away. I was feeling dazzled just from looking at a lightly coloured wall, or walking into a room with a window, even when it was not sunny. The TV became unbearable.

My eyes had become really sensitive to light, and I had to wear sunglasses whenever I went outside, even when it was cloudy.

If I got up in the night, the bright spots seemed to crowd in on me and block my view in darkness, and when I was in a brightly lit room, I could clearly see what looked dark blobs and lines right in front of my eyes, and they moved around as I moved my eyes around.

When I sat in my living room in the evenings with my partner and my cat, at times it became hard to make out the features of their faces in the dim lamp-light.

All these things were beginning to get uncomfortable, upsetting, and disturbing.

As most people do, I began searching online for my symptoms, to see if I could understand more about what was happening. I think I probably searched for ‘fuzzy dots in front of eyes’ or something like that, and I ended up coming across something called Visual Snow Syndrome.

These are the main symptoms of Visual Snow Syndrome:

  • Moving dots over your entire field of vision, like snow or static
  • Bright flashes of light or colour
  • Small objects appearing to float in front of your eyes
  • Being sensitive to light (known as photophobia)
  • Images of objects remaining, even after the object has left your field of vision (known as palinopsia)
  • Shadow images of floaters, that move as you move your eyes
  • Starbursts around lights, such as car headlights

I was immediately sure that this was what I had: I could relate to all of it.

I discovered that the images that stayed when I looked away were something called palinopsia.

The blobs in front of my eyes that obscured my view were things called floaters.

I was glad to find a name for the symptoms I was experiencing, and that I was not the only one reporting them, but I was dismayed to see it was a condition that was not yet fully acknowledged by many medical professionals.

I read that there were doctors who thought it could be linked to migraine. Although I did get these, the eye symptoms were there all of the time, not just when I had a migraine.

From what I read, it seemed to be some sort of neurological disorder, but other than a few doctors that had showed an interest, it was largely unrecognised.

I had so many questions. I wondered in particular what had caused this to happen to me now.

I was also afraid that there might be something physically wrong with my eyes, and that my eyesight was deteriorating in some way. I knew I needed to get my eyes checked out.

Trying to get help

The first thing I did was see an ophthalmologist at my local Specsavers, and I paid to have as many tests done as she felt were necessary. I was continuously blinded by the lights she was shining in my eyes. The whole experience was disorienting and verging on painful, and I was embarrassed about coming across as a high maintenance customer, who had to keep stopping and waiting for their sight to recover.

The ophthalmologist was great, though. She told me that she could find nothing physically wrong with my eyes, which was a relief. She could see that there were some floaters there, but she said that was quite normal for someone who was approaching middle age, like me.

She went away to speak to her boss, and then came back and told me that they thought it was probably Visual Snow Syndrome. I had not mentioned it to her, because I hadn’t wanted to affect her opinion, so it was extremely validating thing to hear her say it. She said she would write a letter to my GP, asking her to review my medications in case anything could help.

I was hoping I might be referred to a neurologist. I had seen one when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, only the year before. I was wondering if this was perhaps linked, especially as it was all coming after I had had a serious, long period of mental distress.

Unfortunately, I came up against some resistance when I finally spoke to my GP.

After I pressed the issue with her again, my GP said it might be best to refer me to the mental health team, which I had only just been discharged from.

I tried to explain that I didn’t think it was connected, but she still made the referral. I had no choice but to back down and just go through the motions, so we could rule out mental health as a cause, in a process of elimination.

I waited about four months for my referral to go through and during that time I went back to my doctor yet again, because my eye symptoms were beginning to really upset me.

I had told a couple of my friends about what had been going on, they were quite shocked at what I was having to deal with. They encouraged me to go back to my GP and demand more firmly to see a neurologist. I did exactly that, but I was denied again. She said that there was like a psychological element to all this. Once again, I gave in and decided to just go with that idea and see it through.

Around this time, I had also been having increasingly severe dissociative episodes, which would occur when I became overwhelmed with emotion. I would get a sudden need to lie down, and my body would go numb. It felt as if my mind were separating from my body and floating away. It wasn’t nice at all.

These episodes became a more of a priority than what was going on with my eyes. When I was finally allocated a psychologist, she suggested we focus on them instead. It was fair enough, as the dissociation was by then causing the most disruption in my life at the time.

I was allocated the same care co-ordinator I’d previously had for about 5 years. I told her about my issues with the visual snow. I mentioned that it was quite a rare condition that doctors did not know much about (big mistake!). On hearing that, she instantly dismissed it.

She told me that she thought it was to do with stress. I didn’t feel at all stressed, and I didn’t agree, but once again I decided to just go with what the professionals were telling me. There wasn’t much else I could do.

Even if you know in your heart that the professionals are wrong, you often have to go along with their version of things, for as long as it takes to finally disprove it.

After a few sessions with my psychologist, I reminded her about my eye issues again. She said that she thought it was likely happening along with the dissociative episodes. I told her that the symptoms didn’t tie in with the other episodic dissociative symptoms, because they were there all the time.

A few sessions later, she once again attributed my eye symptoms to the dissociative episodes. Frustrated at having to correct her again, I said extremely firmly:

“They are there…” (deep breath) …”ALLLL THE TIIIME!!”

I felt rude, but it worked because she did listen, and she finally acknowledged that perhaps it was due to something unconnected after all.

I felt glad that she was finally listening to me, but what actually happened was that the eye symptoms were completely swept under the carpet – lost in amongst a number of other more pressing issues.

I am still having psychology to help with the dissociation, though it has been slow progress due to the lockdowns. It has helped quite a bit already, though. I still dissociate, but nowhere near as bad.

Unfortunately, my eye symptoms have not improved at all. They have been the same for well over a year now.

Although it is slow progress with the mental health team, I’m hoping that once I get the dissociation sorted out, we may be able to come back to the eye issue. Maybe they will listen to me then and we can look at other non-psychological factors? (I’m not holding my breath for a magic cure though, obviously.)

I do think that if you have had a lot of contact with mental health services, everything you experience gets attributed to your mental health, especially things that are harder for medical professionals to understand or solve easily.

In the meantime, I have no choice but to get on and live with it.

Living with it:

The walls are still covered with moving pink, green or black dots. Everything lightly coloured looks permanently dirty and cobwebby, and I’m dazzled and disoriented as I go about my day.

It is like I’m looking through mist or a smudgy, dirty window all of the time, and I often need to frown or squint to see detail. I’ve started wearing glasses when I read, use the computer, or watch TV, and although they sharpen up a little of the fuzziness, they don’t do anything to help with the visual snow symptoms.

A lot of the time I try not to dwell on it, because thinking about it too much can make me feel hopeless, trapped, and overwhelmed. Writing this has been difficult, because focusing on it makes me hyper-aware of how much it affects me, and it is a little depressing.

Lying in bed at night is probably the most difficult time of day for me, because when I look around the dimmed or dark room, I feel surrounded by moving swirls of dots, shadows, streaks, and shapes. The tiredness at the end of the day makes it feel all the more exhausting.

The most distressed I have felt through all of this was the moment I realised that the dots, shapes, and lights did not go away when I closed my eyes. Lying in the dark in bed, I realised there was no escape. I couldn’t get away from it, ever.

I felt suffocated and terrified beyond words, and I knew that there was nothing that anyone could do to help me, including myself.  I had to get a grip on myself quickly: being that terrified made me feel like I really could lose my mind.

It is near impossible to truly convey what it is like to experience this every waking moment of the day.

I sometimes describe the symptoms to people as ‘tinnitus of the eyes’, in that it is a constant ‘noise’ in the background that you can’t turn off. At least with tinnitus, however, you can put on some white noise or music to block it out.  There is nothing like that for my eyes.

In the absence of medical professionals’ input, I have my own theory about why I have developed Visual Snow Syndrome. It began not long after a period of severe stress and trauma, which I experienced over an extended period of time.

I believe that my neurological system became so painfully stressed, that I developed fibromyalgia, visual snow syndrome, and tinnitus, all around the same time.

The common denominator for all these things is that they are neurological.

Fibromyalgia is a neurological condition that was not acknowledged for quite some time by the medical profession. There is still not consensus on why it develops, but it often occurs after someone has experienced mental ill-health or a traumatic experience.

Your neurological system works overtime and tells your brain that you are in pain when you aren’t. I’m not an expert, but my theory is that, in the same way, my neurological system is working overtime when it comes to the input from my senses.

My sight is altered, because the signals carried by the nerves between my eyes and my brain are not working properly and going off in ways they shouldn’t, and the same is happening with my hearing, causing the tinnitus.

The hunches or theories of patients and sufferers rarely hold much weight up against the opinions of medical professionals.

Although I have had Visual Snow Syndrome diagnosed by an optometrist, I continue to remain in limbo as no other health professionals will acknowledge it.

I continue to live without any support in terms of how to cope, but I do cope.

I hope that one day more will be understood about this condition so people like myself will finally be believed, validated, and given more support.

9 key principles working in customer service taught me about supporting people in crisis

Customer service is often viewed as menial, low-skilled work, but there is an art to doing it well.

I have had a number of customer service jobs, including working for various auto breakdown services, and a private pathology lab. I was often on the phone to distraught people: perhaps they’d had a smash on the M25, and they had 3 terrified children with them, or they were waiting for a breast cancer test result that was running late and were petrified the delay was due to bad news.

Those calls were much trickier than the average; however, through them I learned some fundamental principles that have continued to help me help others, including work with prisoners and rough sleepers, for many years since.

Whether you are dealing with a vulnerable person in crisis or a customer on the phone, they come in handy.

Here are 9 that I see as the most important:

1. What people define as a crisis is relative

A crisis can be an enduring situation where your whole world is literally falling apart, or it can be a sudden, short-lived incident that causes acute stress but is able to be resolved within a day, or even a few hours.

What one person experiences as a crisis may not be the same as another.

Timing is also a consideration – someone might normally cope well with a situation, but they might not have the emotional resources to cope with it other times.

All reasons for distress are valid and relevant because of the meaning they have for the person experiencing them.

It is best to avoid judging someone coming to you in crisis, even if their issue does not resonate with you, or you see it as minor or silly in comparison to others.

People need to feel like their problems are not just valid, but that the extent and gravity of their problems as they see them is acknowledged.

People, understandably, need to feel like they matter, and that their problems also matter.

2. You can make a big difference in just one interaction

When someone is already stressed out, whether it is because their car is damaged, or they’ve dropped their phone down the loo, or they’ve found themselves suddenly homeless, the last thing they need is a difficult interaction when they reach out for help. This only makes people feel more stressed, angry, and frustrated with their situation.

We all know what a relief it can be to have a problem sorted out speedily and adeptly. The call handler is friendly, empathetic, and competent, immediately putting you at ease. They give you opportunities to ask questions, explain what you’re not sure of, and tell you what they will do to help. You come off the phone feeling lighter and less worried about your problem, now it is in someone else’s capable hands. Your stress levels decrease immediately.

Most of us have had experiences at both ends of this spectrum and can remember how differently we felt after each of them.

You can radically affect how stressed someone feels in quite a short space of time, depending on how you approach their issues and how you treat them.

Make the most of those opportunities.

Lessen their burden, instead of adding to it.

3. Anger is fear and a need to be heard

When someone in crisis appears angry, it is often fear in disguise.

Understanding this is key to being able to help someone whose stress comes across as anger.

If someone seems frustrated or angry, I stop talking and listen. I let them do all the talking.

After they get their initial rush of frustration out, most people begin to relax, especially if they aren’t coming up against resistance from you, and it is obvious that you are listening.

A calm, attentive reaction often takes people by surprise. They’ve most likely been expecting a battle, and it doesn’t happen.

You will notice their relief emerging as they begin to slow down, take some breaths & eventually stop talking. Sometimes they even start to feel a bit embarrassed at their outburst, and they apologise. So many times, I have heard the words:

“Sorry, I know it’s not your fault – I’m just so worried about it all and I don’t know what to do.”

People often just need to be heard and have their fears acknowledged. They need to be able to share the impact a situation is having upon them and have someone be a witness to that. They need to feel the emotions they are having are externally valid.

Anger is rarely about you as the helper: it is more about the person’s situation, and how afraid and out of control they feel because of it.

(N.B. I am not saying anyone should have to tolerate aggression. It is not okay for someone to get abusive. I have found that active listening, followed by focusing on joint problem-solving, is very effective in deescalating anger. If it isn’t working, it is important to be assertive and possibly end the interaction if they are being aggressive towards you.)

4. People need allies

Someone in crisis who is reaching out for help longs to feel that they aren’t alone anymore.

Being distressed and alone is something no one should have to experience.

Knowing that someone somewhere is helping to shoulder the weight of their problem (especially someone who has access to resources to help them fix it) can make a huge difference to how powerless someone feels.

It doesn’t mean that you should do all the work for them, or that you should step outside professional boundaries. Just ensuring someone has a positive interaction with you will help them feel less alone.

Even if there’s little you are able to do, sometimes just listening and acknowledging is the best way to be an ally.

5. Be reliable

This is one of the simplest, but also most powerful, of these principles.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to be reliable when you are working with someone in crisis.

It is likely that you represent a glimmer of hope for that person, so don’t just throw that away.

If you say you’ll do something, you must do it. If you forget easily, make a note, or put it in your calendar.

If you’re not able to do what you said you would, let them know. Get in touch and tell them that you’ll need a couple more days to find something out, or that you’re going to be trying something else instead.

Not doing something when you said you would (especially when someone is relying on you to help), shows that person that they don’t really matter – even if that is not your intention.

Don’t just leave someone in limbo, wondering what’s happening – they will most likely be worrying. Call them. Get in touch and let them know.

It might feel easy to get lazy about these details, but don’t let that happen.

If you can’t commit to things, it is probably best not to make those commitments in the first place.

6. Be honest

Don’t take the easy road and tell people what they want to hear, just to make your life easier. Honesty is everything – even if it means delivering less than satisfactory news.

People appreciate being told the truth.

Most people prefer news that isn’t the best to lies given only to placate. This is otherwise known as ‘fobbing someone off’, and most of us know how that can feel.

7. Move people forward

A manager and trainer at Citizens’ Advice taught me this:

You may not be able to solve someone’s problems in one go, but you should aim to move them on a step further than when they walked in.

Openness, warmth, and a listening ear may be helpful in the moment, but you should also think about what you could give the person that they can take away with them.

It might be something tangible such as an information leaflet or a telephone number to call, but equally important are hope, the relief of a problem shared, the courage that comes from having an ally, or even some restored faith in humanity.

We can all think of times when we’ve walked away from an interaction feeling more hopeful, whether it was from a medical appointment or a call to the insurance company.

People feel better when they can see where they are going, or what steps to take next. It is like finally receiving a map to somewhere when you’ve been completely lost.

8. Everyone can benefit

We could probably all do with more customer service in our lives! You don’t have to be in an official ‘helper’ position.

I use these principles in my daily life to support others, even my partner, my parents, and my friends. I regularly ask myself:

“What can I do to help this person? How can we sort this situation out? Will letting them talk while I listen help? How can I help take them from feeling stressed to feeling a bit better about things?”

9. Be human

I’m not suggesting by using customer service principles we should all become call-centre robots. Not at all. Good customer service is warm, supportive, and validating. Everyone is treated as an individual equally as important as the last, and everyone’s plight is as valid as the next.

I was once assessed over on the phone by a mental health worker who sounded like she was reading questions from a script. I later gave feedback about this to a manager, and was told, ‘yes, that’s because she was reading from a script’.

My point was missed completely: I knew she was. The point was that she was not in any way bothering to disguise it. That felt impersonal and hurtful when I was already feeling vulnerable and being asked such sensitive questions. I needed to speak to a human, not a robot.

Nurse, doctor, receptionist, call handler, or friend: any of us can make a difference to other people’s distress by thinking about how we interact with them, and what effect it might have on them.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what position you hold.

Often it is just about being a human being talking to another human being.

The simplest things are often the most powerful.