When she signed on to train as a crisis support officer with the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)’s domestic violence hotline three years ago, Amnani Fatin Abdul Kadir didn’t fully understand how serious domestic violence could get.

“I wanted to do something good with my life and so I signed for a training programme to be a para-counsellor with WAO. At the training, I learnt real-life stories of victims, some who were murdered or seriously injured (by their abusers) and it was overwhelming. This was all new to me. After the training, I was depressed for a month,” shares Nani, 34.

Before the WAO training, Nani had no idea how to respond to someone in crisis or to deal with her own emotions when faced with such harrowing accounts.

“We hear stories all the time about someone’s neighbour or friend or relative and we want to help. But as bystanders, we shut down and often wait for someone else to do something,” she says.

The WAO training programme helped Nani understand domestic violence and gave her the skills to respond to callers in distress. She is now the crisis support supervisor with the WAO where she leads a team of volunteers handling the hotline.

“The core function of a crisis support officer is to provide psychological first aid to callers. Managing the hotline is WAO’s core function and crisis support officers are the front liners who respond to emergency and crisis calls.

“They are trained to deal with crisis intervention and psychological first aid. They help callers go through a rational thought process, present options that empower callers to make a decision or a safety plan based on their situation. We also connect them to the services that WAO or other service providers have for them,” explains, WAO’s case manager Charlene Murray.

WAO crisis support officers (fr left) Nani, Tan and Jane Peris joined the programme because they wanted to help women in crisis. Turns out, they too have beneffited from the skills learnt in their daily lives. Photo: Ong Soon Hin/The Star

WAO received 2,078 calls on their hotline and 1,700 text messages on their messaging platform helpline TINA last year. The rest were from police or hospital referrals.

“Crisis support is an integral part of the work we do,” Murray emphasises.

WAO is launching their second hotline crisis intervention programme next month. It is open to members of the public who want to volunteer as crisis support officers for their helpline.

The specialist training programme consists of three days of intensive training, as well as a six-hour practical mentorship component, where trainees work with the WAO team to deal with calls as well as text messages.

“Volunteers learn crisis intervention skills as well as the nature of domestic violence cases, which are integral in understanding how they can best support survivors of violence.

“The practical component is new. We added it based on feedback from the first batch of trainees who felt volunteers needed more training on dealing with live calls. Every call is different … the callers’ circumstances are different and their mental and emotional state differs. Volunteers need to know how to respond in different situations.

“The training also covers the basics of criminal law, Shariah law, family law and psychological first aid from experts in their respective fields. Volunteers are also guided through self-care techniques which are crucial in helping them cope with the harrowing cases of abuse they will encounter through the calls and messages that come in through the hotline.

“The aim is to get volunteers to fully understand the work of WAO and how they will play a big part in empowering women,” says Murray.

For members of the public, especially those who want to give back to society but don’t have the platform or skills to help, the training programme is an opportunity to consider seriously.

“I believe there are many women who want to support survivors of violence, particularly domestic violence and who want to work in women empowerment but don’t know how to go about it.

“This is an opportunity to do something bigger – it’s truly a privilege to be a part of someone’s recovery. Every call you pick up is an opportunity to change someone’s life and get them out of harm’s way,” she stresses.

Psychology undergraduate Tan Yih Jiun says her experience as a crisis support officer has convinced her to become an activist.

“When I joined the programme, I thought it was about emotional counselling and active listening. As a psychology student, I thought it would be useful. I had no idea what I would be dealing with. I went from being curious about volunteering to knowing for sure that I want to be an activist. This is my calling.

“It’s not just counselling. We are here to support women and help them find solutions.

“By the time the survivors reach out to us, they are desperate and out of answers. They have already gone through their options and because they can’t find a solution, they call us.

“I am still learning but being a crisis support officer has been enriching,” says Tan, 23, who has since recruited three of her friends into the programme.

The WAO Hotline Crisis Intervention Programme will begin on May 6 for shortlisted candidates. Women above 18 who want to assist survivors of violence can apply for the programme at bit.ly/waocso by May 1. For more information, contact Anna at 03-7957 5068.