It takes two: talking your way back to health
When you're feeling down, usually the last thing you want to do is to talk to someone else who feels as depressed as you do. But that's exactly what a new scheme in London is encouraging men to do — and it seems to work. Back to Life mentor Vaz takes up the story.
I grew up in Pinner and now live in Greenwich. I've been mentoring Abdul since February 2007. I found out about the scheme — it's called Back To Life - through the internet when I was looking for a work placement to complement my psychotherapy degree.
It interested me because I'd had depression since I was nine years old and was keen to use my experiences.
By the age of 17, I had tried to take my life more than once. At 18 I started taking drugs to numb the feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness and by the age of 21, I was drinking heavily — about one bottle of whisky a day.
In the Asian community, mental health problems are taboo and it is considered shameful to have any form of emotional weakness.
For this reason I couldn't tell anyone in my family what I was going through. I think it is especially difficult if you are male — you have to put up a front because it's not masculine to discuss your emotions.
My recovery began at university. After a one month period of being at absolute rock bottom, I knew something had to give. I started to read self-help books and began to write about how I was feeling; I wrote for a year.
In the beginning what I was writing was illogical and didn't make sense but gradually things became clearer and my perception of why things happened, changed.
I first met Abdul at his Mental Health Centre. He'd been referred to Back to Life by one of his mental health workers. He is 22, and has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
When I first met him, he was withdrawn and quite resistant towards me. He appeared to be testing me to see if I would judge him. When I didn't react towards him — instead I listened and allowed him to express himself — he gradually became more forthcoming. Now we meet on a weekly basis.
At the beginning of our mentoring, I had to build up Abdul's trust in me. He would ask questions such as 'why are you doing this?' and 'how long do you have to do this for?'
It took some time, but I think it makes a difference that I am a volunteer and not a professional.
I'm here because I want to be and he appreciates that I truly listen to him and don't try to tell him how he should be feeling, or judge him.
This encouraged him to open up to me. He has now even introduced me to his dad and some of his friends.
When we first met Abdul wasn't always going to his meetings with his key workers as he thought they were vilifying him and they were out to get him.
He asked me to go with him for some moral support at these meetings. I've also helped him to fill in job applications, and we have been making plans for him to move into his own flat so he can become more independent.
Sometimes we just socialise, we've been go-karting, to the IMAX cinema and we'll often pop out for a coffee.
Mentoring Abdul has been harder than I expected because every week is different and presents me with new challenges. I have to adapt to Abdul's moods, improvise a lot and be careful about what I say. I've learnt to truly listen, which is a lot harder than it sounds.
However, I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing Abdul progress and being able to help him learn from my own experiences.
I think it's sometimes just a relief for him — like it is for all of us - to get things off his chest and out into the open. He realises now that there is a route out — a route to recovery — and our relationship seems to have awakened his interests. He really wants to get involved with producing his own rap music and organising music events.
Being a mentor has helped me to reflect on my own experiences too.
Because I didn't want to appear weak, the only people I could talk to when I was ill were female friends.
Although this was comforting in some ways, I would have liked to have spoken to another man who could empathise with my situation. I understand how important it is for Abdul to have another male to talk to, especially as he lives in a predominantly Asian community. I think I can relate to what he's going through from what I have experienced.
I think the main reason Abdul and I click is that we can relate to each other's background. I think there's a feeling in Abdul's area that white authority figures are always interfering. His social worker is Asian, but from a different generation so he can't relate to him in the same way.
It's a two way process. Mentoring has helped me to look back on a difficult period in my life, which I actually can't remember very well. I think it's very therapeutic and useful for me personally to gain a greater understanding of what I went through.
Back To Life is a London-based mentoring scheme for young men recovering from mental health issues. It is run by the national volunteering charity TimeBank. For further information on finding a mentor or becoming one, visit www.backtolife.org.uk.
Page created on November 1st, 2007
Page updated on January 17th, 2010