We need to break the silence around mental health and show that talking about it needn't be difficult

It’s Time to Talk Day and we’re joining the campaign to get people talking about mental health. One in four of us will be affected at some point in our lives, so being able to talk about mental health is important for us all. Talking is also the first step towards building greater awareness and acceptance.

Here at TimeBank we are specialists in providing mentoring support to young people with mental health issues. We started our ground-breaking project Back to Life back in 2008, offering emotional support to young men and women recovering from mental health issues.

The results were overwhelming – the young people who took part said they built confidence, improved their quality of life and felt more ready to engage with society after taking part. They told us that having a volunteer mentor made them feel less isolated and brought new hope for the future.

One said: “Before, I’d be in agony, I’d be in bed, and that is what my mentor helped me with. She got me out of the house, talking about it and it helped me get some ideas of what I wanted to do and put them in place.”

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We built on that experience with further projects - The Switch, which supports young people making the transition from children’s to adult mental health services, and Shoulder to Shoulder, the first peer mentoring project in the UK to support ex-service men and women recovering from mental health issues. We’ve recruited and trained volunteer mentors to help carers improve their emotional well-being and cope with the stresses and strains of caring. And we’ve recently worked with the Institute of Psychiatry to assess the effectiveness of volunteer mentoring as a preventative measure to support young women leaving care who are at higher risk of developing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.  

Our volunteer mentors spend a few hours each month with their mentees in a range of social activities, but crucially they listen and talk.  Not everyone feels comfortable talking about their mental health problems, but over time trusting relationships develop with the ability to confide about various issues, including mental health diagnoses, relationship problems, or general feelings of anxiety or insecurity.  

It is important to remember that mentoring is not right for everyone, or a panacea to all mental health problems – it is a complementary intervention alongside professional services which can be transformational if done well, with skilfully matched volunteers and expert training.

The results have been overwhelming, showing that support from a mentor can make a huge difference to emotional well-being and building confidence. The young people who took part in The Switch said they felt more able to face challenges, try something new and make friends.  A quarter were able to make the move into education or employment.

“When I saw her last she was just an entirely different person. She was so painfully shy to start off with and now she’s so much more confident. If I’ve achieved anything for her it’s really helping her with her confidence,” said one of our volunteers.

Volunteers are uniquely placed to support people recovering from mental illness; they are not professionals or from social services and can therefore provide a complementary, unique and fresh perspective.  The very fact that they are volunteers has a tremendous impact – it sends a powerful message that they are choosing to be there, not because they have to, but because they want to.

We’ve been delighted that our volunteers felt they had benefited from taking part in the project too.  More than half reported an increase in their understanding of mental health issues. They also said their communication skills had improved, particularly in terms of communicating with vulnerable or unresponsive people.

So let’s carry on talking about mental illness. We need to realise that it is much more common than most people think, break the silence and show that talking about this once-taboo issue doesn’t need to be difficult.