Co-Chair Tash Walker explains how Switchboard have made it through the COVID-19 pandemic so far 

BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS

Switchboard are a crucial LGBTQI charity that have been providing support and information to millions of people since their phone started ringing in 1974. Throughout their history, they have been at the forefront of supporting LGBTQI communities in facing the issues of the day.

Even during an unpredictable year like 2020, Switchboard has been dedicated to being a safe space for anyone to discuss anything, including sexuality, gender identity, sexual health and emotional being. 

Plus, their award-winning podcast, The Log Books, has just returned for a second season! The Log Books tells the untold stories from Britain’s queer history. The first season covered the years 1974 to 1982, drawing on handwritten notes made by volunteers at Switchboard and season two picks up where they left off. 

Tash Walker, Co-Chair of Switchboard and producer of The Log Books, caught up with DIVA to let us know how the charity is dealing with these unprecedented times and what we, as members of the LGBTQI community, can be doing to help them. 

How long have you been working for Switchboard? 

I joined Switchboard eight years ago as a Listening Volunteer, have been a member of the Board for six years, and am now in my third year as Co-Chair of Switchboard.

How has COVID-19 affected the work that you do? 

When the government announced the UK was going into lockdown, we had to make a really difficult decision and shut our phone room for the first time in 46 years. We worked through the night at Switchboard to ensure that we could continue providing calm words when needed most. I’m so pleased to say the helpline remains open and we took our first ever remote phone call on Tuesday 24 March.

This is an incredibly difficult time for everyone, with increasing levels of anxiety, isolation and loneliness. We knew that we had to find a way to keep the phone line open for our callers and I’m proud to say that we have made history in doing so. Almost every single call we were taking throughout lockdown featured increased anxiety and isolation because of COVID-19.

The contacts to the helpline have really increased, at their height they were up 40% in comparison to 2019. We’ve seen an increase in people under 24 contacting us, an increase across all ages contacting us via IM and email (which we think is directly linked to people not wanting to feel overheard on the phone), and a 42% increase in people who are transgender and gender-non conforming getting in touch throughout lockdown. 

How have you had to adapt to the current circumstances? 

It has been a real team effort at Switchboard as our staff and volunteers worked hard to adapt to the changing circumstances we found ourselves in, both within and outside of Switchboard. In addition to moving to remote working, it was equally, if not more important, to prioritise the emotional wellbeing of our volunteer staff – if we cannot support ourselves we cannot support others. We implemented a rigorous check-in and support processes, as well as creating our Emotional Wellbeing Support Packs and Remote Working Support Packs for our volunteers. 

What help does Switchboard provide for individuals within the LGBTQI community? 

What Switchboard offers is that safe space, someone to turn to, a confidential listening service where you can be heard and where we can help you talk through your next steps. 

We have three arms to our services – our telephone line, instant messaging and email service and we are open from 10am to 10pm, 365 days a year.

We are a confidential helpline open to the LGBTQI communities and beyond, for anyone who wants to talk about gender identity, sexuality, sexual health and emotional wellbeing. 

What are you doing to move forward in these difficult times? 

One of the biggest challenges for Switchboard, for any organisation I think, is to stay relevant. And at Switchboard we’ve stayed relevant by evolving and responding to the changing needs of our communities and by offering a service that’s relevant and useful to LGBTQI people and the times we’re living in.  

We’re now in our 46th year and have been at the forefront of supporting and listening to people in whatever way they need us. From the police raids and child custody battles from the 70s and 80s, to becoming the leading source of information on the then new and unknown disease of HIV/AIDS, as well as helping people navigate Section 28 throughout the 80s. 

Over the years our volunteers have responded to heart-breaking calls of loss and despair, as well as to triumphant messages of love and acceptance. We don’t know what issues the coming decades will bring but we’ve been supporting the LGBTQI communities since 1974 and we certainly have no plans to stop now. 

How can people support Switchboard right now?

First and foremost you can show your support by helping to spread the word about the services that we offer. Raising awareness of our name and number. Whether that’s dropping our leaflet through your neighbours inboxes or sharing details on social media, it all helps to raise awareness which means we are able to help and support more and more people in need.

Many charities are going through a difficult time right now, anything you can do to help will make a huge difference, from donating or fundraising, or as I said just helping to raise our profile.

Head to the Switchboard website for more information, or call 0300 330 0630 if you need to speak to a Switchboard operator. 

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