November 13, 2007

The North Dublin Befriending project has won an international award for its work. Sylvia Thompson reports on the organisation's aims

Making new friends is a great help to those who suffer from mental health problems, an innovative voluntary project has found.

The North Dublin Befriending project, which brings together volunteers and people with mental health problems, has just received a best practice award for its work from the international organisation of mental health associations, Mental Health Europe.

The idea behind the project is a simple one. Volunteers (known as befrienders) are matched with people with mental health problems (known as befriendees) and times and places are arranged for them to meet and enjoy each other's company.

The project was set up two years ago by mental health worker Katy Hoban and community development worker Ann Devoy Kelly. "The project started as a Mental Health Ireland initiative when mental health associations in Fingal, Blanchardstown, Drumcondra and Finglas recognised that people with mental health problems needed help to get back out into the community," explains Hoban.

Befriending projects are not new in themselves and exist in various forms through drop-in centres or community mental health outreach services. However, Hoban and Devoy Kelly's project was developed specifically to offer people a chance to meet someone one to one in a public place.

"We wanted to reach people who were feeling isolated and needed support to go out to places and participate in activities," says Hoban. "Some people with mental health problems don't even see their families so it's difficult to make that first step. Walking into a crowd on your own or starting a new course can just be too much if you are depressed."

Hoban and Devoy Kelly select and train volunteers and then match them with people with mental health problems referred to them from day hospitals and by community mental health nurses.

To date, 39 volunteers have been trained and 22 matches have been made. So who volunteers on a project like this? "Our volunteers range from those training to be a nurse or care worker to those who were ill and are now fine and want to give something back," says Devoy Kelly.

The issue of stigma is dealt with straight away. "Early on in the training, we ask the volunteers if they know someone with a mental health problem and 99 per cent of the class do. This means that many of them already have an insight into mental illness," says Devoy Kelly.

The volunteers are also trained in mental health awareness before they are matched. "The volunteers learn their boundaries. It's explained to them that they are not counsellors or home helps. They are not there to give advice but to help people solve their own problems and find their own path in life," says Hoban.

Each volunteer must be able to offer about four hours a week to the befriending project. "We look for a commitment of six months from volunteers. Basically we are looking for people who are good listeners and have plenty of empathy," says Hoban.

The project has a number of ground rules such as no phone numbers are exchanged between the befrienders and the befriendees, no home visits are allowed and each person has to find his/her way independently to the arranged meeting place.

"We also match men with men and women with women and once we have selected who is suitable for who, either Ann or I will be there for the first meeting to introduce them to each other," explains Hoban.

Hoban and Devoy Kelly also get feedback from both individuals at regular intervals to ensure the one-to-one contact is working out well.

Activities range from going swimming to going to the theatre to having lunch in a restaurant to attending art classes together.

Eileen O'Dwyer, who was referred to the befriending project from a day hospital in north Dublin, says she has benefited hugely from the service. "It's been great for me because I live on my own. I suffered from agoraphobia and I could hardly leave the house."

Since she was matched with a suitable volunteer, O'Dwyer has gone on trips to Malahide Castle, the Hugh Lane Gallery and had afternoon tea in the Gresham Hotel.

"I still don't like crowded places but I enjoy every minute of our meetings and I'm very thankful for it," she says.

The volunteers are not given information about the mental health problem the person has or had. "We find that they'll talk about it anyway but we don't think it's appropriate for us to give them that information," says Hoban.

Last month, the North Dublin Befriending project came to the end of its two-year pilot phase which was funded by the Dormant Account Funds, distributed by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Since then, it has been formally set up as a charitable company, the North Dublin Befriending Service Limited, and will be officially launched soon.

Meanwhile, Hoban and Devoy Kelly have plans to develop social clubs in various locations in the north Dublin area.

"In April, we set up a social club in Blanchardstown. We meet on Thursday evenings and every second Thursday, we go out bowling or to a play or a film," explains Hoban.

Plans are afoot to set up social clubs in Coolock and Finglas, and volunteers are also recruited to help out in these projects.

Still basking in the glory of receiving the Best Practice award from Mental Health Europe, Hoban and Devoy Kelly have just been told that the project is also a finalist in the innovation category of the annual HSE awards to be announced later this month.

"We're excited about that because the publicity would help us get funding for next year. At the moment, we have funding until the end of January so we're having to learn how to fundraise now for the first time," says Hoban.

For more information on the North Dublin Befriending Service, tel/fax: 01-8387184 or e-mail ndb@mentalhealth