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

PUBLISHED: 09:32 01 October 2012 | UPDATED: 09:33 01 October 2012

Simon Alcock has been visiting a client who has psychotic depression and is encouraging other would-be volunteers not to be put off by the stigma of mental health problems.
PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Simon Alcock has been visiting a client who has psychotic depression and is encouraging other would-be volunteers not to be put off by the stigma of mental health problems. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Archant Norfolk

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

A Friend in Need

The Norwich Evening News and Voluntary Norfolk want to increase the number of community befrienders in Norwich.

With people living longer, communities becoming more disparate, and support services constantly over-subscribed, offering isolated and vulnerable people a lifeline becomes ever more vital.

That is where community befrienders can make all the difference.

Spending two hours with a person who may have no other visitors that week is a small commitment, but one which can bring huge benefits.

We launched our Friend in Need campaign in June, and have since seen a huge rise in the number of people volunteering across the city.

As Voluntary Norfolk’s team sees time and again, when someone knows they are being cared for, it breathes confidence into other areas of their life, leads to genuine friendships and – most importantly – can be a whole lot of fun.

To find out more about befriending, contact Voluntary Norfolk on 01603 614474, email admin@voluntarynorfolk.org.uk or visit www.voluntarynorfolk.org.uk

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.”

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 mark.shields@archant.co.uk

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