Friendship and mental health

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The Compeer program helps you make friends and change lives

The simple virtue of being kind can heal a mind.
This is what I have learned from my experiences in community related services.
Compeer Program.Indian Link
I was speaking recently with a person who is suffering from a bipolar disorder. He had become socially isolated when he lost his job in the 1990s and was struggling to find meaning in his life. Five years ago his health professional referred him to a ‘friendship program’ which has since given him a new lease on life.
“My life has changed for the better,” he told me. “I feel much younger and I want to live longer. The program matched me with a friend with common interests, and has helped in building long term robust relationships.”
The program is called Compeer.
Internationally recognised as a valuable adjunct to traditional medical and rehabilitation treatment, Compeer operates under the auspices of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia.
Based on the principle of the Power of Friendship, the Compeer program matches volunteers in one-to-one friendship with people who have become socially isolated due to mental illness.
Now I was keen to learn the other side of the story, that of a volunteer. One of the volunteers I spoke to has been with this program for three years and is relishing every moment of it. This was his first community-based volunteering experience and he professed that this program has changed his life for better. The program has widened his narrow view of the world, he said, adding that he was able to learn the real meaning of the word empathy.

Compeer Program.Indian Link
Christine Callaghan (SVdP Support Services Executive Officer) and Terina Stibbard (SVdP Senior Operations Manager, Community Development

“My friend is a friend, nothing special,” he recounted. “He is like my other friends; I see no difference and I don’t see his mental illness being a barrier in any way. He is just a normal human being who needs love and kindness. In fact, every human being needs it. We might act tough and be a hard person on the outside, but everyone wants to be loved and to be looked after. Our friendship started through our common interest of playing cricket and now we play season-long games together at a local club.”
It is fascinating when two strangers become friends through a simple program which is designed around the qualitative rather than materialistic aspects of life. Compeer’s mission is to improve the quality of life and self-esteem of adults with a diagnosed mental illness, through one-to-one friendship with a caring volunteer. It promotes social inclusion and the reduction of stigma through friendship, which is built around mutual trust, respect and understanding.
The Compeer program recently marked its twentieth anniversary, celebrating with a gala lunch where it commemorated the very first friendship in Australia through its model twenty years ago.
Compeer Program.Indian Link
Brian Rathborne celebrates his 20-year friendship at the Compeer Gala event

St Vincent de Paul Society Executives, including NSW President Denis Walsh and Acting CEO Dianne Lucas, described their experiences from the program and the benefits derived by both the volunteers and their friends.
Denis Walsh acknowledged how Compeer volunteers make a difference in the lives of others. “Compeer has been hugely successful in combatting social isolation, a significant concern for people living with mental illness,” he said. “We chose to celebrate the twenty year milestone during National Volunteer Week because Compeer relies on the commitment and passion of its volunteers.”
Dianne Lucas noted how the program has flourished over the past 20 years. “Our first friendship matches in Australia took place in 1997 when we set up 10 friendships,” Lucas said. “Right now we have 190 friendship pairs, plus 155 individuals in the Alumni Program across Western Sydney, Northern Sydney and Sydney City South East.”
Bradley Foxlewin, the Deputy Commissioner of NSW Mental Health Commission, was the guest of honour and he shared his thoughts on how he leveraged the Compeer program to build some of the programs at the NSW Mental Health Commission.
Compeer Program.Indian Link
If you are over the age of 18 and interested in social and community causes, and/or if you are looking for a flexible and a meaningful volunteering opportunity that fits your current lifestyle, and if you can spare four hours in a month for 12 months, then the St Vincent de Paul Society’s Compeer program is a perfect volunteering opportunity. You will receive training and ongoing support from the Compeer team and health professionals through one-to-one contact and events that connect you with other volunteers in the Compeer family. As in any friendship, volunteers and their friends spend time together enjoying activities such as chatting over a cup of coffee, going to the movies or enjoying activities of mutual interest.
Compeer volunteers come from all walks of life and beliefs, and are friendly, emotionally mature people who want to make a difference. You can make a new friend and have the opportunity to make a difference to someone’s quality of life.
Research shows that volunteers live happier and healthier lives. In 2015, Compeer successfully applied for grant funding from both Western Sydney Partners in Recovery and Inner Western Sydney Partners in Recovery. This grant funding has allowed Compeer to provide additional social opportunities for people who had been referred to the program whilst waiting to be matched with a volunteer friend.
If you are interested in becoming a Compeer volunteer please get in touch with the team on 02 9568 0295 or compeer@vinnies.org.au.  Details visit compeer.org.au.

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