By Cheri Alvarez, CEO, Compeer
At Compeer, we believe that friendship heals and can change the life of a person striving for mental wellness.
Compeer is a nonclinical, social service agency. We match volunteer peer companions with people living with mental health challenges. Friendship decreases the loneliness and isolation often associated with a mental health diagnosis, so Compeer offers one-to-one friendship and social engagement activities for youth and adults. These friends become a steady source of support for many of our clients.
In 2018, Compeer received $1.8 million in funding under OJJDP’s Mentoring Opportunities for Youth initiative. We used the funds to grow our mentoring program for youth with mental illness, expanding it across five states. The funding from OJJDP meant that an additional 1,000 young people received a mentor. In 2021, Compeer received $1.2 million under OJJDP’s Multistate Mentoring Programs initiative, which we are using to expand youth mentoring into 15 new communities and across 2 additional states.
Compeer mentors help address the social and emotional challenges that often accompany mental health issues. Friendship can help reduce the isolation experienced by many young people with anxiety and depression, which in turn helps youth attend school more regularly, engage in class, and improve their grades. Young people who regularly attend school and graduate high school are less likely to join a gang for social support, use illegal substances, or engage in other behaviors that could lead to encounters with the juvenile justice system. Our participants tell us that they have better self-esteem, show positive behavior changes, and make better decisions—all key components of a mentally healthy young person.
We measure the success of our program against several intermediate and final outcomes. At one year, we look for an improvement in a young person’s ability to make friends, develop an expanded support system, increase connectedness to the community, and decrease social anxiety and isolation. Ultimately, we want to reduce loneliness and increase hope and optimism—and we want every participant to have a friend.
In 2021, we surveyed participants in our youth mentoring program and asked about their experiences since being matched with a Compeer friend. Every youth participant reported feeling better about themselves, and nearly everyone said their friend helps them work toward their goals (97 percent) and is someone they look up to (98 percent).
Bernice “Bunny” Skirboll founded Compeer in Rochester, NY, in 1973, a few years after a near-fatal car crash left her with a fractured femur, crushed chest, collapsed lung, fractured pelvis, and internal bleeding. The accident threw her world into a tailspin, but “the healing power of friendship” helped Ms. Skirboll endure a long physical and mental recovery. She realized how meaningful relationships can impact a person’s mental health.
In 1975, Ms. Skirboll began volunteering with an “adopt-a-patient” program, assisting people transitioning from inpatient psychiatric facilities to life in the community. In 1977, she expanded the program, basing it in the community and calling it Compeer. The name combines the terms “companion” and “peer.”
In 2007, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration listed Compeer’s model of one-to-one support on its National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices. Now headquartered in Buffalo, NY, Compeer has 40 affiliates: 36 in the United States, 2 in Australia, and 1 each in Canada and England. There are more than 2,000 active matches.