There’s no doubt that connecting with other people helps a person get the most out of life, whether it’s sharing the happiness of a big accomplishment or relying on them for support through periods of struggle.
For people recovering from serious mental illness, however, those social connections are difficult to forge. That’s why Compeer Chester County facilitates one-to-one friendships between Compeer volunteers and people recovering from mental illness, including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. On a voluntary basis, those who are in treatment and have been referred by a mental-health professional can participate in the program, which then pairs them with a Chester County community member of the same gender who has compatible interests.
“A lot of times when a person develops a serious mental illness, they become isolated. Friends that they’ve had might fall away, and their world becomes narrowed,” says Sherry Thompsen, outreach coordinator for Compeer Chester County, which is a local chapter of the international Compeer, Inc. “Some say that the only people they know are the people in the hospitals or their therapy groups, and that isn’t a complete, full life. Compeer gives them a feeling that they’re a part of the community and that their world can expand.”
Each year, the organization distributes a survey to its program participants, and the responses nearly unanimously indicate that the Compeer-facilitated friendships make them feel less socially isolated, more self-confident and more optimistic about their lives. The time that these recovering patients share with their Compeer friend—taking a walk, watching a movie or volunteering together in the community—is incredibly valuable for bolstering their self-esteem and self-worth.
Thompsen stresses that the organization is different from other one-to-one matching groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters in that it’s not a mentoring club. She explains that compeer is in the dictionary as meaning “companion” or “peer.” The volunteers are discouraged from viewing themselves as counselors or therapists; they are expected to be effective listeners, reliable companions and trustworthy friends.
“We put emphasis on the fact that the friendships are between two equal people who are getting to know each other and spending time together,” she says.
The organization also seeks to combat the stigma of mental illness and help the public better understand the recovery process.
In 2009, Compeer Chester County sponsored 72 friendships, including 14 new matches. They are always looking for more community volunteers to facilitate matches.
To learn more, visit compeerchesco.org.