Compeer celebrates 50 years of harnessing the ‘healing power of friendship’ to treat mental health

Braden Diebel walks around the Buffalo Museum of Science, excitedly showing off his favorite exhibits and sharing his scientific knowledge with Ethan Tong, his Rival mentor.

The two young men have been hanging out together since March, doing things like touring the Buffalo Museum of Science, walking through Delaware Park, playing carnival games at Canal Fest and watching the latest Spider-Man movie on opening weekend.

While they were matched through Compeer, a local organization that promotes mental health through connection and friendship, they said, the two became the brothers they each never had.

We hung out, talked all the time about everything in life throughout his time in high school and whatever else was going on,” said Tong, a senior at the University at Buffalo.

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Braden Diebel and his Competitor mentor, Ethan Tong, hang out on Saturday, October 7 at the Buffalo Museum of Science, one of Diebel’s favorite places.

Joseph Cooke,

Natalie Brophy

Fostering such connections has been Compeer’s goal for the past 50 years, said CEO Cheri Alvarez. The organization, founded in 1973 in Rochester by Bernice Skirboll after she was in a near-fatal car accident, is celebrating its half-century this year.

We believe in the healing power of friendship, said Alvarez.

Compeer connects people with mental health diagnoses with volunteers in the community to build friendships that address the challenges that often come with mental health disorders, Alvarez said. Clients are referred to Compeer by their mental health professional, and counselors are volunteers who find the company often through word of mouth, as Tong did.

Pairs are matched based on compatibility and common interests.

Compeer has connected mentors like Ethan Tong, right, and thousands of individuals like Braden Diebel, a sophomore at Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, for five decades. International organization headquartered in Buffalo.

Joseph Cooke/Buffalo News

The organization asks each pair to commit to a minimum of one year, four hours a month to develop their friendship. The data Compeer has collected since its inception regularly shows that friendships actually grow over a one-year period, Alvarez said. Some Compeer matches have been friends for over a decade.

Alvarez said individuals are feeling less lonely, less isolated, and their social engagement and confidence when interacting with others increases. Sometimes, mental health symptoms cause us to withdraw from friends and family, and getting back into it can be difficult.

Rival history

Compeer starts right at the Thruway.

In 1965, Skirboll was seriously injured in a car accident and spent two months in the hospital. She found that her family and friends provided an incredible source of support and were instrumental in her recovery. She also realized that not everyone received such support.

Compeer, a combination of the words companion and peer, was first called Adopt a Patient when Skirboll started the program under the Mental Health Association of Rochester.

Compeer started with 12 volunteers but now serves thousands of clients at 40 locations in the US, Canada, UK and Australia. The company is currently headquartered in Buffalo.

Addressing mental health stigma

Although treatment and understanding of mental health disorders has evolved over the past 50 years, Compeers’ model has remained consistent and successful, Alvarez said.

“I think the need for it existed at that time, I think now the need for it exists even more,” she said. It’s a basic thing. We all deserve friendship. We all need it.

The stigma around mental health has also changed over the past 50 years. Alvarez said she sees this most in the language society uses to talk about mental health, such as the terms death by suicide and suicide.

“I think we’re becoming more and more aware that when we call someone crazy, it contributes to stigma,” she said.

Visit the Buffalo Museum of Science

Competition mentor Braden Diebel, right, and mentor Ethan Tong at the Buffalo Museum of Science. It’s a great opportunity and I get a lot of joy from it,” Tong said of his friendship with Diebel. Diebel and Tong, at the top, said that each became like the brother they never had.

Photo by Joseph Cooke, Buffalo News

Rival counsel Tong said he didn’t think much about mental health in his life until the Covid-19 pandemic hit. He said the months of isolation have affected his mental health.

Tong plans to apply to medical school after graduation, and during his short time volunteering and working in the healthcare industry, he found that mental health is still a topic that needs more attention.

“It still feels like being discriminated against and taking a back seat,” he said.

The stigma that still exists around a mental health diagnosis can prevent people from seeking the help they need, Alvarez said.

Grant helps Compeer teach mental health first aid to teens

The grant also includes funds to support a mentoring program that promotes positive mental health for students.

When someone is experiencing mental health challenges, she said, sometimes they feel like they’re alone or they’ve done something wrong or no one understands so they’re not getting the help they need. And that’s terrible.

But Alvarez said she sees hope in the younger generation, who are open to discussing counseling and mental health.

Their conversations and openness about mental health, I don’t remember anyone talking about that when I was in school,” she said. And it amazed me. This generation needs to teach the older generation how to talk about mental health as freely and comfortably as they do. There was no hesitation and it was beautiful.

You want to volunteer?

Compeer volunteers do not need to have any background in mental health, Alvarez said, but Compeer does provide training in mental health first aid.

All volunteers must be 18 years of age or older, undergo background checks, interviews, and must provide references to ensure the safety of program participants. Compeer serves customers 6 years and older.

The volunteer’s role is to be a friend, Alvarez said. Therefore, they need to be good listeners, be able to show empathy, want to try new things, and be patient.

Diebel was Tong’s first mentor. He learned about Compeer through a friend who was a volunteer with the organization.

Visit the Buffalo Museum of Science

Competition mentor Ethan Tong and mentor Braden Diebel spent time together earlier this month at the Buffalo Museum of Science. Diebel, a sophomore at Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, enjoys sharing his love of museums and science with Tong.

Joseph Cooke, Buffalo News

Diebel, 15, said he enjoyed sharing his love of museums and science with Tong. At the same time, Tong also helps Diebel be more active and improve his physical fitness.

“It’s a great opportunity and I’m excited that it can influence and mentor a person and can shape the way they grow,” Tong said.

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