ChesterCountyMedicine Spring 2018 - 28

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Friendship

is Powerful Medicine

W

hen facing a serious health
condition or diagnosis, many
people rely on family, friends
and colleagues for comfort and support.
A visit from a friend with a home-cooked
meal, or even a phone call, are more than
simple acts of kindness. These interactions
have been proven to have a positive impact
on our overall health and wellbeing.
But we know that when someone is
struggling with depression or other serious mental health conditions, the response is not the same. Mental illnesses, sometimes
called the "no-casserole illnesses," often elicit judgment from
others, and feelings of shame and guilt from the person diagnosed.
Fortunately, that is beginning to change with programs like Compeer Chester County.
An international organization that came to the United States
more than 35 years ago, Compeer is guided by the simple premise
that the support of friends enhances the quality of life, improves
the ability to cope with life's stress, and fosters mental wellness.
Don Altemus is the program manager of the local chapter.
"Compeer was created to match caring adults in one-to-one
supportive friendships, and we know the power of friendship
makes all the difference in the life of a person in recovery," Altemus
said.
Studies have shown that having encouragement and support
increases resiliency and self-confidence, among other things.
Altemus, who's worked in the mental health field for 15 years,
began his position less than a year ago. His first involvement with
the organization happened almost a decade before when he was
matched in a friendship which he says he still cherishes.
Said Altemus, "In addition to that friendship, I also got to
know other people through Compeer events, and those people are
friends of mine to this day."
Lynn Ament is one of many people who have benefited
from a Compeer friendship. Having struggled with both physical and mental health conditions, Ament credits Compeer with
real life-saving connections. Matched with her Compeer Marge

28 CHESTER COUNT Y Medicine | SPRING 2018

Keinard for more than 10 years, Ament
says of the friendship, "It pulled me
out of a bad place, connected me with
somebody, and then a whole new world
opened to me."
Like any friendship, Ament and
Keinard's has evolved over the years.
When first matched, they would often
go out to meet for lunch or other activity. Ten years later, Lynn, who has limited
mobility, chats on the phone with Keinard, now 92, every day. The
connection is clearly win-win for both.
"Marge is still my number one cheerleader," Ament said.
Compeer has been called powerful medicine for loneliness, but
the phrase is backed up with science. Brain research has shown specific and significant changes in a lonely brain. Stress hormones go
into overdrive, and a person can become detached. But connecting
with others and sharing life experiences can help to create positive
brain changes. It's especially important for people with mental
illness, who can become isolated.
The word "compeer" is defined as a peer, a companion, an
equal. The organization recognizes that mental health conditions
can be lonely illnesses, and believes that volunteers can provide the
comfort and motivation needed to help people in mental health
recovery lead happier, more productive lives.
Marilyn Baker, a long-time mental health advocate, became
involved in Compeer Chester County when it was still in its
infancy. She was asked to join the organization's advisory board by
the chapter's first director Rob Chisholm, in 1999. She's still an
active member today, but sadly lost her Compeer friend, who had
physical health concerns, last year.
"She used to live on Long Island, where I'm from, which is why
Rob suggested we meet. We developed a close friendship," Baker
said of her friend. "We did things like visit museums, go to the
movies, and visit the library. She was an avid reader."
Baker noted that the Compeer guidelines suggest approximately 4 hours a month contact between the Compeer friends. She and
her match developed a close relationship, however, and averaged


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