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How volunteering can improve mental health

Posted on Sunday 30 September 2018

By Charlotte Hawkins, Volunteer Contributor

The 10thOctober is World Mental Health Day, an annual event that has been held around the globe since 1992. It promotes mental health awareness and education and also campaigns against social stigma that can be faced by people who have mental health difficulties. 

It’s been widely publicised recently that in any given year, one in four adults will experience a mental health problem. 

Mental Health Awareness

Globally, 300 million people world-wide suffer from depression, and a similar number suffer from anxiety disorders. Countless more suffer from less common but perhaps more debilitating mental health problems such as addictions or schizophrenia. As well as the obvious distress caused to the sufferer, this has an impact on their ability to cope on a day-to-day basis and can make it difficult to sustain relationships and employment in the longer-term.

One of the things that has been proven in scientific studies to be of benefit to those with mental health problems has been volunteer work. In 2013, a systematic meta-analysis (a review of all the reliable studies put together) by the independent and internationally respected Cochrane collaboration found that the existing research “showed volunteering had favourable effects on depression, life satisfaction and wellbeing”. The evidence showed that volunteering definitely improves mental health, rather than being just associated with it. These effects are most prominent in those aged over 40, although people of all ages can benefit.

So how does volunteering actually improve mental health? 

Clearly, the benefit to each individual would depend on their own personal circumstances, but volunteering is particularly good for those with psychological difficulties as long-standing mental health problems are associated with low self-esteem and isolation, which can become a downward spiral. Volunteering can help to combat these difficulties, particularly for those who are not in paid employment for mental health or other reasons. For those who are in paid employment it can also bring benefits as many of the pressures and expectations that come with paid work are absent from a volunteer role. 

Volunteering has been shown to:

  • Promote positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness and stress tolerance.
  • Encourage a more physically active lifestyle which can improve mental health in itself.
  • Distract us from our own problems and help us to keep them in perspective.
  • Improve self-esteem and confidence in our practical and social skills.
  • Bring a sense of belonging to a community who share our ideals.
  • Help us to feel part of a team who are working towards a common goal together.
  • Boost our sense of self-worth by doing something where our time and efforts are appreciated.
  • Give us a positive feeling that what we are doing will help others and make the world a better place.
  • Provide much-needed social contact within a supportive setting to those who feel lonely or isolated.
  • Allow someone who has been unable to work due to mental health difficulties to dip a toe back into the world of work and to test out whether they are ready to return to paid employment.
  • Give a new sense of purpose and routine to people who have recently retired and are struggling with the loss of identity and structure that came with paid employment.

Varied volunteering roles

TFC Volunteering till

True Food has a wide range of activities for volunteers, ranging from those which require expertise to those that need no prior skills or knowledge; those which involve interacting with other volunteers or customers, to those which can be done in the comfort of your own home at a time that suits you.

Volunteer activities include:

  • Shop: Serving customers, creating promotinal displays, cleaning and restocking
  • Marketing: Helping out at events, social media, website and leafleting
  • Practical: DIY, cleaning, collections and deliveries
  • IT and Admin: IT support, shop and membership admin

TFC MinkeIf you have a mental health difficulty, making the first steps towards getting involved as a volunteer can seem overwhelming and intimidating. However, charitable organisations that function largely through time given on a voluntary basis are experienced and used to dealing with helpers who have these problems. Paid staff and fellow volunteers are happy to provide additional support and understanding of someone’s limitations if it is needed. Volunteering at True Food (or anywhere, for that matter), might help you to overcome your difficulties, and if you find it doesn’t, you haven’t lost anything by trying.

 

“My volunteer roles at True Food…have benefited my mental health in many ways.” Charlotte

As someone who has suffered from depression in the past, and has on-going issues with anxiety, I can say from personal experience that my volunteer roles at True Food – both writing articles and hosting in the shop – have benefited my mental health in many ways. In particular, learning new skills (how to operate a till!) reviving latent ones (amateur journalism) and interacting with people who share my views have helped to reduce my anxiety when I am outside of my comfort zone and given me a sense of perspective on life. It also makes me feel positive that I am doing something that is both valued and valuable. 

If you would like to give volunteering a try, here are a few points to bear in mind:

  • Be realistic about what you feel able to do at the moment. For example, if busy shops make you more anxious, throwing yourself into a hosting role at True Food on a Saturday morning probably isn’t a good idea! Get involved initially by doing a behind-the-scenes role. You may feel more confident to try something more interactive in the future, and if you don’t, your behind-the-scenes contribution will still be important and valued.
  • Start small and build up slowly. If you struggle with depression or anxiety on a day-to-day basis you will probably find your first volunteer session emotionally draining. Volunteer tasks that are done in your own time can be performed when you feel most able, but if you would like to commit to a shift in the shop, start with an hour at a time. You can always do longer next time if you feel you can manage it.
  • If there are tasks that you feel would be too much for you at the moment, TELL the paid staff this. All the work that volunteers do is valuable, and it is far better for both you and our organisation to be upfront about what you can do, rather than wait until more hectic times when staff are under pressure and you may feel unable to say no. This goes for any physical limitations too.
  • If you are finding your volunteer role challenging, you will also be amazed at how supportive staff and other volunteers can be if they are made aware that you are struggling. Open communication is the key.
  • If you are worried about any of the roles within True Food and don’t want to launch straight in, ask if you can shadow an experienced volunteer until you feel confident enough to have a go by yourself.

All welcome!

True Food welcomes all volunteers, including those with physical or mental health difficulties. Being part of the True Food community involves working together for a common cause, and working together includes supporting people who may be limited with what they can do or challenged by the tasks involved.

If you would like to know more about volunteering, you can ask to speak to one of the paid staff members, or if you would find it easier to email to arrange an appointment to speak to a staff member, email organics@truefood.coop.

Remember, if you volunteer for three hours each calendar month, you get a 12.5% discount off your shopping, but that is a drop in the ocean compared to the psychological rewards that volunteering can bring.

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