Student Jackie Webb says one of her best psychology learning experiences happens outside of class on Wednesday nights. That's when she volunteers her time to visit three adults with mental illnesses who recently left their group home for apartment living. The experience, she says, has convinced her that her future lies in psychology.

Webb, an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth (UMD), garnered the opportunity through her campus's chapter of Compeer--a national organization founded in 1973 that enlists adult volunteers--Compeers, or companions who are also peers--to befriend patients who have mental illnesses. Most Compeer chapters are community-based efforts that partner with local churches, community centers and other organizations to give patients in group homes and other programs the chance to have friends without the fear of stigmatization.

But psychologists Sharon Sousa, EdD, and Christine Frizzell, EdD, founded the first campus-based Compeer chapter at UMD in 2003. The program targets psychology, social work, nursing and criminal justice majors, who can earn one experiential learning credit each semester for attending the Compeer training sessions and regularly volunteering an hour a week with residents. Currently, 65 students volunteer--40 from UMD and 25 from nearby Bristol Community College--as well as 11 adults from the community. Part-time program director Karen Nourse checks in with them and the mental health agencies to make sure things run smoothly.

Some volunteers visit group homes in pairs to simply hang out; others may take patients to a basketball game on campus or go out to dinner. Students like Webb who volunteer consistently for a semester can transition to visiting with patients one-on-one.

The residents gain a friend and some social confidence, while students get experience that counters popular assumptions about mental illness--experience Sousa hopes they will continue to tap after college.

"Our hope is that when these young adults are living in communities where a group home is being petitioned, they'll be able to generate support instead of fear," says Sousa, also a UMD assistant nursing professor.

Friends in need

Many of the residents the UMD students visit are clients of nearby Corrigan Mental Health Center, a state-funded facility that offers residential, inpatient and rehabilitation services. The center does its best to offer socializing opportunities, but that socializing is mostly limited to other patients or staff members. Compeer fills an important gap, says psychologist Robert Frazier, PhD, its clinical services director and a member of the UMD Compeer Advisory Board.

"It's hard for patients to find a place where they can meet with people more in the mainstream of society," he explains. "The nicest thing is that the clients know the Compeer is coming to see them. They're special."

But Webb is quick to add that she benefits just as much from the experience.

"They look forward to my visits, but it's also an escape for me," she says. "When I'm stressed with school or some of the obstacles in my life, I don't think about any of that while I'm there."

In fact, the experience has had such an impact that she's decided to earn a five-year dual bachelor's and master's degree in psychology and hopes to pursue a clinical psychology degree next. Frizzell adds that several other students have gone on to work at community mental health agencies.

Pooling resources

That kind of win-win situation for students and residents alike is what drove Frizzell and Sousa to start the chapter. They began with a $35,000 in start-up funds from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Faith-in-Action grant program and have kept the project afloat with funding from the state Department of Mental Health, the United Way and student-organized fundraisers ranging from bike-a-thons to candy sales.

University resources have also been key, say Frizzell and Sousa. Not only does UMD allow the psychologists to donate their time to Compeer, but it also hosts the campus's Compeer Web site and has allowed other university staff to help the chapter find an inexpensive cell phone plan and design brochures.

"The university sees it as a benefit to students and as part of the university's public service mission," says Frizzell. "And it's great publicity."

Indeed, the campus has proved fertile ground for the program, she notes, since volunteers and residents can attend on-campus sporting events, plays and other low-cost activities.

That's why Frizzell and Sousa invited representatives from the state Department of Mental Health and other Massachusetts campuses to UMD in the fall to discuss replicating it elsewhere. The University of Massachusetts Boston and Bridgewater State College are likely locations, says Sousa. And with some advocacy in the state legislature, the mental health department may be able to chip in more funding.

Sousa and Frizzell say they are hopeful they will witness the spread of the program not only in Massachusetts, but across campuses nationwide.

Further Reading

For more information, visit www.umassd.edu/compeer.