Timebank’s Back to Life project

Loneliness and depression go hand in hand, prompting a mental health mentoring scheme in south London to strive hard to ensure its clients can re-engage with society. Natalie Valios reports

Loneliness and depression go hand in hand, prompting a mental health mentoring scheme in south London to strive hard to ensure its clients can re-engage with society. Natalie Valios reports

More than half of 18 to 34-year-olds have felt depressed through loneliness, a Mental Health Foundation report said last month.

Loneliness may be a common experience The Lonely Society? said, but people are embarrassed to admit to it.

This was true of Lucy*, who suffers from depression. “I had been lonely for three years,” she says. “Friends had distanced themselves from me and I stopped having regular contact with them. But I was too embarrassed to admit it to anyone. My parents were supportive but they couldn’t help me with friendships and that’s what was missing.”

Looking for support on mental health charity Mind’s website one day, Lucy found a link to the Back to Life project.

The project, run by national volunteering charity TimeBank, matches young adults with mental health problems aged 18-35, with a same-sex mentor of a similar age. The aim is to support them to engage with their local community, rebuild their confidence and combat social isolation.

The project is funded for three years until September 2011 to the tune of £55,000 per year by South London and Maudsley (SLaM) NHS Foundation Trust Charitable Funds to work in the boroughs of Southwark, Lambeth, Lewisham and Croydon.

Service users must be accessing or have used SLaM mental health services to be referred, or to self-refer. The project is funded to support 75 service users over three years. So far, five have completed a year and another 10 will have done so soon. A longitudinal study will report when the project ends.

“It sounded like it would be the perfect thing for me,” says Lucy. “I contacted Back to Life straightaway and within two months I met my mentor Emma.”

Mentors commit to five hours a month, although some do more. Sessions are one-to-one but some take place in the community to help engagement with people and activities. Currently 40 people are matched with mentors. The relationship between mentors and service users lasts up to a year.

“The matching process is an important part of the project,” says Craig Weeks, Back to Life project co-ordinator. “It’s no good matching people who aren’t going to get on. I get to know the mentors and clients, their interests and personalities. None of it is rushed.”

Initially, mentors have one day’s training in mentoring skills and mental health awareness and then training every six weeks. Because mentoring is a goal-driven approach, mentors learn how to help their service users identify goals and break them down into manageable steps.

Kate Wilson, marketing officer at TimeBank, felt she could put her listening skills to good use as a mentor. “I’ve been doing it for six months now and it’s been great. You learn that the little things people take for granted, like meeting a friend for a coffee and a chat, make a real difference to my client’s life. It’s been amazing being able to do that.

“We go to the cinema and bowling and whereas in the beginning it was always me suggesting places and things to do, now she will too. I can see a difference in her, doing things she wouldn’t normally do has helped her confidence.”

Weeks attends the first meeting between the mentor and client to introduce them. “I was a bit nervous but quite excited at my first meeting, because I knew it would be a big deal because it would have an impact on the rest of my life,” says Lucy. “We met in a café, but after just a few minutes we clicked and I knew we’d get on.”

Lucy and Emma meet for a coffee, or go for a walk or shopping most weeks. Lucy’s main goal is to gain fitness and lose weight and she plans to do this by swimming, walking and using an exercise DVD.

“Emma is interested in what I’m doing and will ask me about it, so she is the incentive for doing this. Before, I felt like nobody cared.”

Three months on, Lucy says Emma has made “an amazing difference” to her life.

“Just knowing that someone is going to be there at the end of the week has definitely helped. I feel less lonely. I see a community nurse once a fortnight but it’s a different relationship when they are a professional. You need someone who is on your level that you can relate to and can relate to you,” she said.

“This is exactly what someone in my situation needs. The best thing about it is that it’s made to measure. Back to Life solves a real problem that a lot of people suffer from, but no one wants to talk about.”

*Not her real name

Back to life objectives

Key objectives of Back to Life are that at least:

● 80% of service users will have reduced feelings of loneliness.

● 75% will feel more confident.

● 65% will be taking part in meaningful activity.

● 70% will have increased social networks.

Outcomes are measured in several ways, including in-depth interviews of the mentor and the service user after a year, and through regular feedback from both throughout the project.

More information from Back to Life

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Mental Health Foundation: Loneliness must be tackled

Published in 17 June 2010 issue of Community Care under heading ‘Lonely no longer’

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