“I have a lot of empathy for people who feel lonely.”

James has been volunteering for Jami since the first lockdown in 2020. His job as a puppeteer, performing Punch and Judy shows, disappeared when his summer bookings got wiped out, so he found he had more time on his hands. After undertaking an art therapy course, James was advised to do some volunteering as a useful next step, and Jami seemed like an ideal choice. He says: “I have been diagnosed with anxiety myself and my dad’s brother died by suicide in his mid-20s. At the time, his mental health crisis was whispered about in soft tones. Attitudes towards mental illness have changed a lot since then and today many more people recognise that mental health is something that everyone has.”

Becoming a befriender

When it came to volunteering, James wanted to do something that was face to face and where he could chat to people. Jami’s Compeer befriending service, which matches individuals with a volunteer to provide practical support and friendship if they are feeling lonely and isolated, was the perfect option. “I spent a few years living in a bedsit on my own, so I have a lot of empathy for people who feel lonely,” he says.

James’s first match was with a man who has mental health issues as well as an autism diagnosis. “In the beginning, communication was quite a journey. Sometimes, he would just want to play on his computer game and not talk or he would answer every question with just a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’,” explains James. “Once I started to relax and get a feel for his communication style, it became much easier.”

Finding common ground

“During our first few conversations, he wouldn’t tell me anything about what he liked to do and nothing I brought up seemed to land well. There were some subjects he blankly refused to discuss so I would make notes before our call with ideas of what we could talk about. I have a dormant interest in coins and it turned out that was his special interest, so eventually I was able to connect with him through our shared appreciation. We even went to a coin convention in Birmingham together.”

For 18 months, James and his match spoke on Zoom every week at a specific time. And every week, James would try something new to keep the conversation fresh. It was difficult when they had to part ways to avoid dependency, but their connection had a significant impact. James says: “He told me that before we met, he had thought about ending his life because he couldn’t make social connections. But now he no longer feels this way because he managed to make a connection with me.”

Benefitting people in different ways

The relationship James now shares with his second match, a woman who keeps herself very busy, is poles apart but important in its own way. “We have a totally different dynamic,” he says. “Our chats are very casual and light. Sometimes she’ll have a little laugh and I can see that our conversations give her a pick-me-up. We often end on a bouncy note.”

Having experienced matches with two very different people with very different needs, James explains: “The Compeer befriending service can be so many things – from a pick-me-up for some to a lifeline for others. It takes a very gentle approach and is a great way for people to get things off their chest and just talk about their week. It is also a very convenient way to connect with someone and is driven by what the person wants and needs.”

As for James, being part of this volunteer service has been a very positive experience so far and he has no intention of giving it up. “It encouraged me to do level-2 and advanced level-2 counselling courses and I have just finished level 3. I have also taken advantage of Jami’s own education courses and seminars, including its Mental Health First Aid courses.” But, perhaps more importantly, becoming a befriender has been good for James’s own mental health. “Tuning in once a week and letting someone else talk is really rewarding, especially when they open up and say how much they enjoy it. For me, this connection touches a core need and I always come away feeling good myself.”