Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese REPORT
7 Oct 2011
Friendship is a priceless gift and for those living with mental illness, a friend can make all the difference. But most men and women battling mental illness lead isolated lives, disconnected from vital social contact and interaction with mainstream life and their communities.
But the St Vincent de Paul Society is helping to change this through Compeer, a unique program that was first developed in the US, which matches volunteer "friends" with individuals living with long term mental illness.
In the past decade and a half, Vinnies program has fostered 558 such friendships across NSW. With October designated Mental Health Month, the call has now gone out for more volunteers to help the increasing numbers of men and women who live with mental illness.
One in two Australians will experience some form of mental illness during their life time and the gift of friendship for those with long term conditions can literally change lives.
Volunteers with the Compeer program are carefully matched so those they befriend are similar in age, gender, locality but in many cases, also share some of the same interests. As a result in the 15 years the program has been in operation across Sydney and NSW, genuine friendships have formed with remarkable results, triggering positive changes not only those struggling with mental ill health, but for the volunteer "friends" as well.
"I get every bit as much out of the friendship as Jim does," insists Compeer volunteer, Brian Rathborne of North Sydney, who has changed his friend's name to protect his privacy. "I very much enjoy our time together. We get on very well. He is fun to be with. We have some very unusual conversations at times and he has opened up a totally different life and world to me."
Introduced via Vinnies' Compeer program, Brian and Jim have been firm friends since 1996 and both eagerly look forward to the hours they spend together each fortnight when they might take go for a trip to Bronte or Balmoral beach, visit an art gallery, do some sightseeing, take in a movie or simply grab a coffee or milkshake and have a good long talk as they walk through Sydney's streets.
"When I first met Jim he was 47 and until that time he'd never been inside an art gallery or done any of those things most of us take for granted," Brian says, admitting he is amazed and delighted at how Jim's social skills have improved as a result, along with his confidence and self esteem.
According to Brian, Jim suffers from a group of complex mental illness problems, with schizophrenia the simplest way to describe his condition. "His mental health problems started during his school years," Brian explains. "He left school at 16 and worked for a short period at different jobs, but by 17 he was in the world of the mentally ill and spent the bulk of his life in institutions. He's had a rough trot, but when I met him he was no longer in an institution or a group home. Instead thanks to the really good support he receives from the local community's mental health people, he was living by himself in a unit."
Jim still lives independently, but although he is able to do simple shopping for himself, before he met Brian, the people he counted as friends all suffered from some form of mental illness or were health workers involved in his care.
"He keeps telling me I'm his only normal friend and he's very proud of this," Brian says with a smile.
While Brian is now 74 and retired, volunteers with Compeer are of all different ages and from all walks of life.
Twenty-two-year-old Lesa Chung is a relative newcomer to the program and volunteered just over two years ago after reading about Compeer in a Sydney newspaper.
"No one in my family has had a mental illness but a lot of my friends at high school suffered from depression and I wanted to see what I could do to help," she says.
Contacting Vinnies in Castle Hill, near where she lives, she underwent two full Saturdays of intensive training. "We were taught about mental illnesses, symptoms and shown different scenarios I might encounter as a volunteer. We were also trained in practical skills and setting up personal boundaries, and were taught our role was as friends, not as healthcare workers and not to take trying to fix or treat their illnesses on board."
As with Brian and Jim, care was taken to match Lesa with someone of a similar age, gender and location.
"I'll call her Robyn, to protect her privacy, and we have been friends for two years," Lesa says. "Robyn lives at home with her family and has schizophrenia as well as an anxiety disorder. She's a bit older than me but not by much and we spend a few hours each fortnight together. We laugh and talk and talk about recipes and cooking, go for walks, window shop and basically do the sort of things friends do together."
Although Robyn has a very supportive family and two older siblings, Lesa is her first friend outside the family's social circle. Being able to interact with someone outside this circle from her own peer group, and have ordinary every day fun, has given Robyn a huge boost in confidence and the way she looks at life.
"I have learned a lot too, and because of Robyn and my time with her, I have learned to be more considerate of other people and the importance of being humble. We all have a tendency to be a bit selfish and do what we like and say whatever we want, but with a Compeer friendship you learn to be more sensitive to feelings and body language and to be more generous in spirit," she says.
With Robyn, Lesa also shares her love of music. Having graduated with a Bachelor of Music, thanks to Robyn and her association with Compeer, Lesa has now applied to study for a Masters degree in Music Therapy.
"Being a volunteer with Compeer has changed my life too," Lesa says, and like Brian, urges others to consider joining the program and offering the hand of friendship.
"Just being a friend can make a huge difference to someone who is living with mental illness and is isolated and cut off from society," she says.
As part of Mental Health Month, Vinnies Compeer Program is holding volunteer information sessions on Monday, 17 October at 11.30 am and again on Wednesday, 19 October at 6.30 pm. Both sessions will be held at St Vincent de Paul Society, Charles O'Neill House, 2c West St, Lewisham.