My Befriender is my Lifeline

When John, told me that his befriending support over the last few months had been the difference between feeling suicidal and being able to manage his life, it began a discussion about how much he had been let down by our mental health system and why befriending is so important to him.

Befriending offers supportive, reliable relationships through volunteer befrienders to people who would otherwise be socially isolated. There are many projects around the UK that offer these services but due to coronavirus, it became apparent that there were very few of these services available and just how many people needed befriending. When we had the first lockdown although I was already training as a Samaritan, I looked for other organisations to work with and signed up with Age Concern, Mind, Brigade, the NHS and the Red Cross. The experience has taught me many things but the one I want to focus on here is the positive impact it has had on John. I also want to highlight the lack of support he had from the mental health services.

I knew Age Concern for quite a while as they had supported my mum in her final years. I was working as a befriender for them and supporting a lonely 94 year old man, when Emma from Age Concern called saying that she had a strange request and thinking of my background I might be able to help. She said she had a desperate mother who had a physically disabled son who desperately needed befriending. The mother had been looking for someone to befriend her son for weeks and she was at the end of her tether. I was then introduced to John, an amazing lad who gives me inspiration every time I speak to him. He was absolutely clear that he needed someone to talk to on a regular basis to help him deal with his mental health problems. John is 28 and is severely disabled from cerebral palsy. You would hardly know this speaking to him as he just treats his physical disabilities as something he must live with and ha never made it an issue in our chats. John experienced two traumatic events, one at the age of 16 and another at 22 which triggered problems with his mental health, for which he has been seeking help for over four years. John is incredibly articulate and knows that he has an issue and is aware that he needs help to stop his suicidal thoughts. So considering his circumstances, you would think that it would be no problem for him to get mental health support. Surprisingly, the opposite is true. Whilst the initial counselling team were really nice to him, they said that long term mental health wouldn’t be available to him. In fact they offered that John come into their clinic for an appointment, but when John said he couldn’t attend without a great deal of effort to arrange a team to support him due to his disabilities they were flummoxed. Rather than be flexible and come up with a solution to meet John they just said they can’t help him as they didn’t offer “specialised programmes”. Even though two GP’s independently recommended a mental health programme for John it wasn’t forthcoming.

In March when the first lockdown hit, the mental health services told him that he was now at the bottom of a very long list. Also now being in isolation, meant people were even mor reluctant to support or visit him. This was the fourth time John had been told he wasn’t a priority. John said this felt like mental torture and though his experience was awful pre coronavirus, this seemed like the end, and he hit rock bottom. He initially got support from a voluntary organisation, but then found out the organisation only supported elder people and didn’t have the resources to support him. This is where John new he needed some help and he phoned as many organisations as he could find to support him. Call after call he got rejected, saying they couldn’t support him because of his poor state of mental health, particularly if he mentioned suicidal thoughts. Six weeks went by and he stopped eating and couldn’t sleep. His thoughts started to spiral and suicidal thoughts started to flood his mind. Not only was he rejected by mental health services but he was also rejected by the mental health voluntary sector, through no fault of their own. This is where Age Concern stepped in and offered support even though it had nothing to do with their normal business and I came into the picture. I speak to John once a week for an hour and this regular contact for John has been a life saver. When his mum told him, she had found a befriender he shouted out “hallelujah” but he was also worried whether it would work and whether the person would be able to help him. I also know as a befriender that I might not be right for John and this role although highly rewarding is also very tough to get right and needs a lot of empathy.

John says that having a befriender allows him to lead his “normal” life as he can park his mental health issues during the week until he can offload and talk about them with his befriender. By having a befriender John has been able to use his energy to demand that he gets the help that he needs and with his mother’s support and his dogmatic persistence, at last the mental health services have assessed him and are putting in a care package. Even though it is tortuously slow, the review itself took 7 weeks, he feels just by having hope and knowing he will get support means his mind is more at rest.

John says many of his friends are in the same boat and that it’s a double whammy, as those with severe physical disabilities who also have mental health issues find that they aren’t supported by the mental health services. John says it that not only do we need to fix the mental health support for people like him to ensure it is focused on the individual and their specific needs, but also how can create a better national befriending network. John for one wants to personally find a way to help people like himself and champion this movement once he has the mental strength. John has motivated me to continue befriending and also to fight on to change the mental health system.

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