It’s time to talk about mental health, say Norwich befrienders

Talking openly and honestly about mental health is essential to removing the stigma surrounding it, say two friends involved in a specialist befriending service run by Voluntary Norfolk.

Talking openly and honestly about mental health is essential to removing the stigma surrounding it.

That's the message from two Norwich men who have benefited from Voluntary Norfolk's specialist mental health befriending service.

Befriender Brendan Wilson was paired with Kevin James in January 2011 – a match that has since benefited the two friends, with Brendan even finding a route into a new career as a mental health worker.

The two are now encouraging others to sign up to the scheme, which already helps more than 20 people across the city to live fuller lives and get involved in society.

Kevin, who suffers from social anxiety as a result of a violent and traumatic upbringing that led him into drug and alcohol abuse in adulthood, approached Voluntary Norfolk when he moved to from the north Norfolk coast to Norwich to be closer to health services.

'I needed to find some way of being socially included and get in a routine of getting out of the house regularly,' he said.

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'I would come up with 101 reasons not to leave the house. You can live in the city and be surrounded by people, yet you find you are almost even more isolated.'

Despite being heavily involved in mental health procurement – including roles on the service users council at Hellesdon Hospital and the Norfolk Recovery Partnership – Kevin found his time with people outside of mental health services was limited.

'That can become unhealthy,' said the 42-year-old, now living in north Norwich. 'I needed to spend time with someone on the same level, someone on an even keel, who was well both physically and mentally.

'I don't need another healthcare professional in my life: I've got plenty of those already, thanks.

He was paired with Brendan, who was then a professional musician looking for a career that would allow him to spend less time away from home.

The two were paired in January 2011 because of their shared interests in music, sport and cinema, and they continue to meet regularly to watch Norwich City or go to the theatre.

But their time spent together was no gesture of charity – it was also a way for Brendan, whi lives in the Golden Triangle, to take time for himself and build a new friendship.

'I say that I love going to the cinema, but I hadn't been for about two years,' he said. 'It wasn't a luxury that I afforded myself until I met Kevin.'

A mental health training course organised by the charity Mind also opened Brendan's eyes, and led him towards his new career.

'Hearing people's stories and how they responded to people discussing mental health issues really inspired me towards a job in mental health,' said Brendan, 40.

With Kevin's help, Brendan built his experience and now works as an outreach worker for Mind across Norwich.

Both are now passionate advocates for an open-book approach to mental illness, fostered through honest discussion.

Kevin said: 'You have to talk about it to normalise it, to stop it being taboo.

'People ask how you were injured if you are on crutches, but you can't do that for mental illness.'

The role of public figures in speaking out is also crucial, as MPs in the House of Commons and footballer Darren Eadie have done recently.

'As long as we are having the discussion, we are getting somewhere,' said Kevin.

Natalie Hickman, the service coordinator, agreed awareness was improving but said progress was still needed.

'It's important to remember that one in four people have got a mental health illness. It's so prevalent, but I think people are starting to become more aware of it.'

Volunteers are welcomed from a wide range of backgrounds, including former clients, she said.

'Volunteers don't need any specific experience,' she added. 'You don't need qualifications to be someone's friend: just good communication skills, empathy and understanding.'