2022 California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies (CBHA) Conference

Friendship is Good Medicine at Compeer

There is an ever-growing body of evidence that supports the importance of friendship to quality of life. Friendship is both important and often problematic for people who experience serious mental illness (SMI). A recent study of the Compeer program found that its clients experience an increased sense of wellbeing and social connection (Friendship Really Matters: Exploring effects of Compeer friendships for people experiencing mental illness, Dr. Anne Montclaire, Australia, 2011).

The changing healthcare system with its focus on consumer choice, advocacy and cost-effectiveness suggests Compeer’s relevance in addressing the needs of the older adult population. For many older adults, as well as their caregivers, nursing home placement is not necessarily a first, or most appropriate, choice. Keeping elders in their homes and promoting less reliance on institutional care underscores the importance of programs that keep them connected to their communities. Most older persons prefer to remain in the community, yet living alone makes them even more reliant on community-based services if they have a mental disorder. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, 1999)

Older adults with limited participation in social activities have a faster decline in motor function than those who have frequent social engagements, according to a report in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The researchers measured social activity based on frequency of activities such as going to restaurants and sporting events, attending religious services, traveling, playing bingo, and doing volunteer work. While higher levels of physical activity are known to be associated with a slower rate of decline in motor function, this study and others suggest a similar effect for social activity (Buchman, A.S., et al. Association between late-life social activity and motor decline in older adults, Arch Intern Med. 2009 June 22. 169(12):1139–46). Abundant research demonstrates an affiliation between increased levels of social support and reduced risk for physical disease, mental illness and mortality (Lubben & Gironda, 2003). Social networks and social support have been found to be beneficial to the health of individuals in a variety of ways—reducing mortality rates, improving recovery from serious illness, and increasing use of preventive health practices.

The older adult population is the fastest-growing segment of the population; by 2030 it is predicted to double from the early 2000s. With 20% of older adults reported to experience a mental health disorder, and the movement to “age in place”, the need for programs to provide social support, advocacy, and promote community connectedness and independence is increasing.

“One in five older persons suffers from a diagnosable psychiatric illness and the number of persons age 65 and older with a psychiatric disorder will more than double over the coming decades,” notes Stephen J. Bartels, MD, MS, and Past President of The American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry. (Mental Health, Mental Illness, Healthy Aging: A New Hampshire Guidebook for Older Adults and Caregivers, NAMI NH, 2001)

Founded in the 1970s, Compeer is inspired by the belief that “relationships are key to resiliency” and “friendship is good medicine.” Headquartered in Rochester, New York, the mission of Compeer Inc. is to develop, deliver, and support a network of 51 Compeer programs throughout the USA, Canada, and Australia. Today Compeer is nationally recognized as a model program meeting the psychosocial needs of adults, children, families, veterans, and elders who are striving for good mental health.

Working as a complement to psychiatric therapy, Compeer’s model has been shown to produce positive outcomes and improve quality of life for clients, while breaking down the barriers of stigma through volunteerism. In 2004, the Compeer Model was recognized as a best-practices model for recovery by an American Psychological Association (APA) task force (http://www.apa.org/practice/resources/grid/catalog.pdf). In 2012, the Compeer Model was reviewed and approved for listing on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices. Boston University studied Compeer and evaluated the effectiveness of the model. They concluded that people being treated for serious mental illness achieve a significant increase in social support and personal wellbeing, as a result of being matched in a Compeer mentoring relationship, according to the study published in the Community Mental Health Journal. Based on data collected by researchers at Boston University’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, the study compared 79 adults who received Compeer services and community psychiatric treatments to 75 adults with serious mental illness who received community psychiatric treatments without the benefit of Compeer services. The study found that Compeer adult clients reported significant improvements in social support and a trend toward improved well-being: 1) After six months, social support for Compeer consumers increased by 13%, 2) After one year, social support for Compeer consumers increased by 23% and 3) Compeer consumers also showed significant gains in subjective well-being and reductions in psychiatric symptoms. Brian H. McCorkle, E. Sally Rogers, Erin C. Dunn, Asya Lyass and Yu Mui Wan conducted the study. At the time of data collection from 2001-2004, Dr. McCorkle, Dunn and Dr. Wan were at the Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation.

Hundreds of volunteers, spending thousands of hours each month, matched in one-to-one supportive relationships with older adults, over the age of sixty, help bridge the gap between social isolation and social involvement. Compeer recruits, screens, and trains volunteers who are interested in actively helping seniors by providing supportive mentoring and friendship. Compeer’s Older Adult Program matches waiting seniors with culturally competent volunteer mentors. Older adults and their Compeer volunteers participate in productive and enjoyable activities that are important components of successful aging. The volunteer provides opportunities for their older adult friend to participate in cultural, educational, and recreational activities that would not be accessible otherwise. The volunteer may take their Compeer friend grocery shopping, to a medical appointment or to a place of worship. By creating a social network for their Compeer friend, the volunteer relationship becomes a link to positive physical and mental health outcomes and to improved quality of life. Volunteers plan activities to try to reduce the amount of isolation their friends have.

Compeer Inc. envisions a day when all communities embrace individuals and their families living with mental health challenges and supports their journey to recovery. The Compeer network of local programs serves thousands of individuals and families annually through one to one supportive relationships. Compeer volunteers improve the quality of life of those they serve by increasing their ability to remain in the community safely, successfully navigate the complex health care system, and improve social inclusion.

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