A little over 2 ½ years ago I set up the Befriending scheme for the community hospitals across Cornwall. The purpose of the project was to develop a service that provided supportive volunteer relationships with the patients on the wards and enhance their experience through conversations and engaging activities.

It began a steep learning curve; understanding and adhering to all the NHS protocols and regulations. Addressing information governance issues gaining knowledge about hospital acquired bugs and infections, understanding hospital health and safety risks, and thinking about safeguarding, conflict resolution and boundaries.

I attended numerous meetings with nursing staff and the hospital matrons, continuingly reassuring that the volunteers would undergo strict recruitment processes and would receive suitable appropriate training, before being ‘let loose’ on their patients.

I worked with the training manager and developed a 2 day course for the volunteers giving them a toolkit covering all aspects of volunteer befriending in a hospital.

Thankfully, and with a great sense of pride and immense pleasure, the scheme became highly successful and is still going strong in the capable hands of the CPFT Volunteers in Partnership team.

The volunteers exceeded expectations; they have developed their skills in supporting people with dementia, and have adapted techniques to be able to communicate with patients who have had a stroke. Newspapers are brought in and read, photographs, puzzles and card making materials are shared, and the feedback from patients, relatives and staff was overwhelmingly positive and encouraging.

Some volunteers moved on to university to study medicine or go to nursing college, others found jobs in social care, some on the very wards they volunteered on as health care assistants using their experience and new found confidence to lead them along a career path that is both rewarding and meaningful. New volunteers join, and others stay because they enjoy it and find it not only brightens up the day for the patient but for themselves as well.

For me, the next chapter has involved a great deal of research and has been deeply thought provoking, and once again set a learning curve that has been as long as it has been steep.

I have been asked to help write a document detailing a proposal to set up a new befriending pilot project to provide support for people experiencing mental health difficulties. The aim of the One to One Befriending project is to meet the needs of service users who have long-term mental health problems, and whose illness has led to them becoming socially isolated. The volunteer befrienders will help people to take the first steps towards meeting new people, rediscovering old hobbies and developing new interests and connections, and find out what services, activities and groups are available in their local area. The befrienders will provide low-level social and emotional support; encouraging service users to share interests and activities as well as doing ordinary things like going for a coffee and having a chat.

Befriending can provide regular support, companionship and encouragement, and help a person, over a period of time to become independent, develop self confidence and overcome social isolation, enabling them to build and maintain relationships with their local community. Befrienders can help with problem-solving and coping skills, increase a feeling of being valued, and having a sense of hopefulness and optimism about the future.

The main and key thing a Befriender provides is a listening ear; just being there and having time, not because it’s their job, or because they are being paid, or that they are well meaning friends or relatives but because they genuinely want to. At many of my peers support meetings the volunteers said they were surprised that they didn’t need to say anything sometimes; just sit there and listen, and they could see the relief on the faces of the people who were talking and sharing their stories that someone was prepared to hear about it.

When being a Befriender it is important to allow the person to learn about you and your life too, it is a two way process and helps to build and develop a trusting relationship and having common interests gives mutual things to talk about and do.

The relationship between a Befriender and befriendee can really make a difference and matter to both individuals, it can bring a sense of balance and meaning to each person’s life. Befrienders say that they feel they get so much more from their relationship that what they have given to the person they are befriending. The experience is a rewarding one which helps increase their own confidence and can teach lessons in life sometimes from a different perspective.