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A volunteer befriending scheme for people with mental health issues is making a lasting impression
There is an explosion of pink outfits in the office near Southend seafront where Linda White and her friend Jacqui Herbert are having the full works - hand massage, manicure and nail art. The dress code and treatments are to celebrate the achievements of a local befriending service that has reduced the loneliness and isolation of people with mental illness.
White, 50, shows off her jewel-encrusted fingernails, as she explains how Good Companions has changed her life. "I was unable to work and on benefits due to mental illness, and I wanted to put something back, help somebody else. Because I have had my own difficulties with things like depression, it's something I'm good at." She nods to Herbert. "Jacqui knows she can ring me any time for a chat or if she wants to go out for an hour."
Herbert, 39, was referred to Good Companions by her social worker. "I have anxiety and depression and didn't go out much," she says. Her only social outing was a trip to the mental health drop-in centre, which meant she was meeting only other people who were ill. "This," she says, looking around the room, "is just about being normal."
Eight years ago, Veronica Grocutt, 67, was being treated for depression, anxiety and panic attacks when she was referred to Good Companions. She still has a befriender, but has since become a befriender to Barbara Shipton, 63.
"Even if you only go out for a cup of tea and a chat, it's a break," Grocutt explains. "We've been to Yarmouth together. I've been there for her, and she's been there for me."
Shipton agrees: "People do steer clear of mental illness. I have had people I've know cut me dead - they think it's contagious. But I met Veronica eight years ago and it's brilliant we have got on so well."
Good Companions was set up 10 years ago by the Southend branch of the mental health charity Rethink to tackle social isolation in Southend and surrounding areas of Essex as far west as Brentwood.
Volunteers undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks and then a four-session training course over four weekends. The course explains what Rethink does, the main mental illnesses, and their signs and symptoms. It also gives a brief overview of mental health services, medications and treatments, as well as explaining the Mental Health Act.
There are 200 service users on Good Companions' books referred by GPs, community mental health workers, social workers or following a care review. At any one time, there are around 100 volunteer befrienders, who commit to a minimum one hour a week. That could be a trip to the cinema, pubs, an outing, or simply going out for a cup of tea and a chat.
Alison Williams, Good Companions' volunteer recruitment and mental health promotion officer, says a lot of emphasis in the early stages of training is placed on understanding the stigma that mentally ill people face, and dispelling some of the more lurid myths about psychosis and other conditions.
Williams's role has recently been extended to include outreach and recruitment work in schools, colleges, with the local police, fire brigade and local authorities. "We spoke to 800 people last year, dispelling myths and attacking stigma," she says. "People come away realising that people with psychosis aren't mad or violent. They realise they need help and support."
The scheme's manager, Neil Harding, says befrienders get an expenses allowance, but it is not often taken up. "People say: 'I was going to the pictures anyway and I just went along with a friend. Why should I need expenses?'."
Befrienders also act as a sounding board of their friends' mental health. "Someone might say something to their befriender that they want dealing with in terms of their care, and they know it will be raised with one of our staff," Harding says. "Volunteers get access to one of our staff until 10pm every night, even weekends, so if they are worried, or something happens they think the mental health team needs to know, they can get in touch."
Good Companions pays a lot of attention to awareness of boundaries and ensuring relationships are appropriate. Where problems crop up, one of its staff involved in the initial matching will discuss the situation with both sides. The scheme, which employs 10 full-time staff, is run under contract from South Essex primary care trust.
Williams says she is touched by the level of response to appeals for volunteers. "It's heart warming. People think that everyone today is out for themselves, but we hear so many people say they want to give something back."