In this excerpt from the March/April edition of Mental Health Today Magazine, Laura Sacha reports on a three-year pilot in East Croydon exploring timebanking and the benefits for people with depression and anxiety. To read the article in full click here to subscribe. 

When Alexandra joined the TimeBank in East Croydon, depression wasn't her only concern. Poor mental health had left her unable to work and her struggle to pay the bills was only increasing the stress and anxiety that made her life so difficult. "I had experienced some very hard times indeed as well as suffering ill-health, so I thought it was a wonderful idea when the TimeBank started as it meant I could get some services free of charge, as well as offering some of my skills to members," she said.

Alexandra was not alone; since it was set up in 2008, the TimeBank has helped many people in the local area to gain access to services, as well as boost members' confidence and self-esteem. The TimeBank was set up by Depression Alliance (DA), which coordinates a national network of peer-support services for people living with depression. In 2008, it began piloting an employment and wellbeing project in East Croydon, funded for three years by the Department of Health. The aim was for members to support each other through a range of non-medical interventions based around a timebanking scheme.

DA's chief executive, Emer O'Neill, says: "Medical support for people with depression is excellent, but that is only one piece of the jigsaw as the illness can leave you in an extremely isolated place."

By engaging in timebanking it was hoped that members would maintain recovery, increase their social connections and improve their employment prospects. More than three years on and with members now running the project themselves, the benefits of timebanking in a mental health setting are emerging.

Timebanking: an overview  

There are nearly 100 timebanks in the UK with many more in development. Individuals trade skills and are rewarded with 'payment' in a local currency based on time. One hour equals one credit, with everyone's skills and time valued equally. For example, Steve spends an hour tidying Tom's garden. For this Steve earns one credit, which he spends with Tara, who is teaching him to speak English.
Timebanking is based upon five core values characterised by reciprocity, respect and interdependency, which are vital for healthy communities.
• People are assets: every individual has strengths, experience and knowledge to contribute.
• Redefining work: activities such as caring, improving the environment and lifelong learning should be recognised and rewarded as meaningful work activities.
• Working together: reciprocating help with help and moving away from dependency.
• Building communities: acknowledging interdependence and that secure social networks bring more meaning to our lives.
• Empowerment: respecting and listening to the experiences of those who are being helped.

Building the DA TimeBank  

DA's TimeBank was largely co-ordinated by two staff members and based at the East Croydon Medical Centre. The majority of members were referred by the local NHS Psychological Therapies team - usually on completion of treatments - and all were living with depression. More than 70% were either unemployed or retired, and all members were encouraged to offer and receive TimeBank services to help them maintain recovery.

Building a community  

Timebanks are used by people who share a local community. For DA's TimeBank to work, a sense of community was created through a series of social groups and events, which became increasingly member-led over time. Many members experienced high levels of social anxiety, so this safe and supportive network formed the foundations for the TimeBank to grow on. Before engaging in swaps members were given time to build confidence and develop trust in each other gradually by participating in and later leading a range of activities including a support group, a women's group, a creativity group, and an events group. 

Accepting help

Many members were keen to volunteer their services but felt unworthy of receiving help from the TimeBank. This was reinforced by anxiety around 'saving' credits in anticipation of difficult times ahead. To prevent the TimeBank from stagnating, individuals were regularly encouraged by staff and group members to access help, and swaps were advertised through the monthly newsletter and in-house notice board.
"Through the TimeBank, people have started to recognise that they are worthy of treats and help from others," said employment and wellbeing co-ordinator Emily Wheeler. "This is a real confidence booster and we see people become more balanced and healthy as a result."

Benefits of timebanking

  • Structured social support
• Increased confidence through new experiences
• Opportunities to practice therapy techniques in a safe setting
• A sense of purpose and fulfilment
• A step towards employment - voluntary or paid
• Access to free services. 

A step towards employment For the majority of members who were unemployed or retired, TimeBank swaps offered a vital sense of structure, purpose and fulfilment. They were also an opportunity to practice organisational skills and therapy techniques learned within medical services. A small number of members found paid employment during their time in the project.

Timebanking is centred on trust in one another and hope for the future, two issues that are particularly difficult for people with depression and anxiety. With the East Croydon TimeBank now being run by members themselves, DA is now working on a two-year employment and wellbeing project for Kensington and Chelsea residents based within the local NHS Primary Care Psychological Health team.

O'Neill hopes to roll out similar schemes across the country. "People from all walks of life and with common experiences came together to discover what they like to do - and we just let that roll."

To read the article in full click here to subscribe (Note: all service users' names have been changed)