“SUPPORT at the simplest level - offering a listening ear and being non-judgmental can have a huge positive impact on someone's life.”

Julie Darren talks of the benefits of a volunteering role that helps people who are vulnerable and socially isolated gain independence and a better quality of life.

Julie, 52, of Bingley, is a befriender with Bradford-based VITAL, a charity which works to ensure that the vulnerable and disadvantaged have a voice, and their health and social care needs are met.

She is one of a number of befrienders who take part in social activities with their befriendees. This can be anything they would like to do together, from joining walking groups, visiting a community centre, doing arts and crafts, going to the gym, attending an educational course or simply going for a coffee.

Julie joined VITAL four years ago. “I became aware of their work after a friend, who at the time volunteered as a befriender, encouraged me to get involved,” she says. “She was aware I had supported a close friend with mental health issues and thought the insights I had gained would be beneficial to others.”

On average befrienders meet their befriendee one day a week for two to three hours.

“The objective is to offer a supportive relationship with the aim of increasing both self-esteem and self-confidence. The meet ups include a variety of activities that are of interest to them or we may have a coffee or do a little shopping,” adds Julie.

VITAL - which bears the motto ‘Because people are humans not just a diagnosis’ - was set up in 1989 by a group of mental health patients in Bradford who felt there was no-one on their side, and believed they were seen simply as a mental health diagnosis.

Formerly Bradford and Airedale Mental Health Advocacy Group, it primarily provides mental health advocacy services, along with its mental health befriending service.

“Befriending helps people who have become socially isolated as a result of suffering mental distress, to gain confidence through meeting people, and gradually reach a point where they can socialise independently, and hopefully make friends of their own”, says VITAL’s befriending service coordinator Jack Smith.

“Mental distress can lead to people becoming lonely or socially isolated. Sometimes problems can be triggered by an event such as job loss or bereavement, leading to isolation, which impacts upon their mental health.

“Others become socially isolated due to the effects of severe and enduring mental health issues such as anxiety and depression or psychotic illnesses such as bipolar affective disorder or schizophrenia. Sometimes people fear going out in public because of the stigma associated with mental illness.”

Activities involving befriending partners are “as wide as their interests and imaginations,” says Jack. “They might initially visit a library to find out what they could do together within the local community.

“When the befriendee is confident they will then start to do these things together, step by step, until the befriendee has enough confidence to them independently.”

There are two streams of volunteering within VITAL - mental health advocacy and mental health befriending. Following training volunteers will have the opportunity to practice as befrienders, advocates or both.

“As well as ‘giving something back’ volunteering can help people gain valuable work skills. Two of our befriending volunteers have gone on to work for VITAL,” says Jack.

The charity is recruiting at present, with training likely to take place in November.

People can be referred for befriending through various channels including GPs, community mental health nurses, social workers, their housing provider, or they can self-refer.

Their details are matched with someone, mostly of the same sex, often of a similar age, and with shared interests.

For Julie, her involvement with befriending is both enjoyable and fulfilling.

“It has developed into something of a passion to help people in any way I can. I am well aware of the challenges faced by those suffering with mental health issues, chiefly being vulnerability and isolation. Befriending is a method of reaching out to help people understand that they are not alone and that somebody cares. Essentially the service is an offer of friendship.”

Julie - who is currently taking a break from volunteering as she has just started a new job - says her time at Vital has been extremely beneficial on a personal level.

“The skills gained have opened up new opportunities. I started working at Haven, which is a crisis support service, as a volunteer. I later progressed to a permanent job. I now work as a peer support worker. My position enables me to suggest befriending to clients I identify as dealing with isolation as I am acutely aware of the positive impact it can have on a person’s life.”

During her last befriending relationship, her befriendee decided that he would like to take up woodwork at a community arts project in Shipley called Hive, as well as cookery at the Cellar Trust in Shipley. She attended each of these sessions with him until he felt confident enough to do this independently.

They also did things together such as going into town, having a meal or visiting the Media Museum. “We gradually built up a range of things to do throughout the week,” she explains.

Julie also encouraged her befriendee to gain confidence using public transport on his own as his ability to socialise was limited by how much he was able to spend on taxi fares. This was achieved by initially using public transport with him and then encouraging him to travel alone to the venue where they would meet.

Her befriendee eventually started making friends and doing things independently.

Adds Julie: “I have met many interesting people both in terms of fellow volunteers but also the people I have befriended, many of whom I have remained in contact with despite them no longer needing assistance. From a personal standpoint I enjoy helping others to overcome difficulties.”

*To find out about volunteering visit vitalprojects.org.uk; T: 01274 770118