How Voluntary Norfolk’s befriending scheme helped me into new career

It was Simon Alcock's experience of watching his brother struggle with depression that sparked his interest in helping people with mental health problems.

That spark led to a volunteer placement with Voluntary Norfolk's befriending project – which has brought the 42-year-old from to the brink of a career change.

Simon says just six months of weekly visits to Joe (not his real name), his befriending client with psychotic depression, have equipped him with the skills to land a job in Norfolk County Council's social services team, which he will begin later this month.

Simon, of Baxter Close, Mile Cross, and Joe meet every Tuesday, either spending time at home, going for a coffee or, if Joe feels able, walking by the river.

Joe's condition means he finds it difficult to be around people he doesn't know, and there are spells where he cannot sleep for up to four days at a time.

'When I met him, he hadn't left the house without his mother for a number of years,' said Simon.

'The weekly visits are a good focus for him, something to look forward to.'

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As well as furnishing Simon with the experiences to land his dream job, the visits have increased Joe's confidence, though there are times when he still cannot leave the house.

'If he doesn't say anything I can tell he's a bit uncomfortable, or that he's pushing himself,' said Simon.

'We can now go down to the river, where we sit and have a chat. It's a simple thing but it's an enormous step forward for him.

'I'm always conscious that we have to keep talking, because if there's silence he becomes uncomfortable at the people around him.'

For Simon, too, being paired with Joe was a step into the unknown at first.

'I didn't know a huge amount about psychotic depression, but I did a bit of research before I met Joe. He talks about his condition sometimes but it's not something we concentrate on. I don't want him to be defined by it.'

Simon says he has learned a lot from his befriending pairing, crediting it with helping him find his new job, and urged others to sign up to find out more too.

He added: 'There is still a stigma around mental health.

'I saw my brother struggle with depression, and realised it could happen to anyone.

'Mental illness is something that selects you, in the same way as cancer does. But if you say you have a mental illness, people don't know how to react.

'I would encourage people to sign up as I did. It's not something anyone needs to be afraid of.'

Do you have a story of how you have helped others? Call reporter Mark Shields on 01603 772423 or email