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Compeer Cleveland County works to match individuals with volunteers

Compeer Cleveland County, a program of the Mental Health Association in Cleveland County (MHA), provides friendship opportunities outside of the clinical setting for adults in mental health recovery. The program matches individuals, who are referred by their mental health provider, with community volunteers based on shared interests. Volunteers are trained to provide one-to-one supportive friendship and mentoring to offset the loneliness and social isolation that so often accompanies mental health concerns. As an affiliate of Compeer, Inc., Compeer Cleveland County is a part of an international network with over 80 programs across locations in the U.S. Australia, and Canada.
MHA is currently expanding its Compeer program to meet the needs of another one of Cleveland County's most vulnerable populations - seniors who are oftentimes socially isolated and at risk of developing mental health concerns late in life. MHA's executive director, Melodie McSwain, recently became aware of this unmet need and is developing Compeer for Seniors to focus on promoting good mental health in individuals 62 and older. "If we continue viewing mental health only through the lens of mental illness, we're never going to escape the cycle of treatment for mental health beginning at a point of crisis. That's what the Compeer for Seniors program aims to do - to put protective factors in place, to provide natural community support, before someone finds themselves in a crisis situation." (McSwain)
In both programs, Compeer and Compeer for Seniors, friends agree to meet together one hour each week for at least a year. They cultivate a friendship that is based on mutual interests and explore a variety of activities in our local community such as: gardening, shopping, hiking, baking, crafts, or anything else that brings them both joy. Through the simple power of friendship, Compeer volunteers add an important node in the safety net of support for those individuals who need it most. Compeer Calling is also an option for volunteers who cannot commit to weekly in person visits but would like to offer support through a weekly phone call.
The power of friendship has been demonstrated as individuals matched with a Compeer volunteer often experience fewer hospitalizations, have increased self-esteem, and are more likely to adhere to their medication and treatment programs. The Compeer Model is now included in the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP).
MHA's Compeer Coordinator, Stacey Costner, commented: "It is my hope that these types of supportive and intergenerational relationships will return to being the norm in our culture. Until then, I am thrilled to coordinate this program that provides a point of connection for folks who are isolated and lonely due to the stigma of mental illness and/or aging."
Ms. Costner was a Compeer volunteer herself while studying at UNC - Chapel Hill in 2007. She saw first-hand the impact that a simple and consistent friendship can have. She commented: "Not only does the friendship support the person in need of companionship; it also brings meaning to the life of the volunteer. I grew so much as a Compeer volunteer, learning about compassion and how to set appropriate boundaries. I also experienced my own stereotypes about mental illness and aging fade away. I got to know and care about my friend who was 62 and living alone with Schizophrenia. Years after I graduated and moved away, she continued to send me the most wonderful Christmas cards each year with updates on her life."
Stacey is working to grow the Compeer program in Cleveland County and is seeking volunteers, as well as client referrals from participating mental health providers and social workers. To learn more about Compeer visit MHA's website at www.clevelandcountymha.org. You can also contact Stacey directly at 980-429-4037 or mhaclevelandcounty@gmail.com.
Submitted by Stacey Costner

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