How Volunteering Improves Mental Health

diverse hands raised holding hearts

While sitting in a waiting room at a doctor’s office in 2014, I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. As we got acquainted, she told me she was deeply involved with an organization called the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I hadn’t heard of it, but I was intrigued because I was not a stranger to mental illness.

My maternal grandmother experienced debilitating depression for years, culminating in her suicide in 1939. My mother was diagnosed with depression and experienced what I believe was PTSD, following her own mother’s suicide. I had grappled with mental health challenges myself, and I had been taking medication for depression and anxiety disorders for many years.

As I learned about NAMI that day, I knew instinctively this was an organization to which I could happily devote my time and energy. I had always shied away from volunteerism because no cause had ever inspired the passion required to keep me motivated. Now, eight years later, I am still a NAMI member and vocal activist for mental health.

With some personal reflection and review of scientific literature, I’ve come to understand that volunteering itself can be an act of self-care.

 

The Benefits Of Volunteerism

Naturally, the dialogue surrounding activism and volunteerism centers on how others will benefit from volunteer work that you do. But years of research demonstrate that there are benefits for volunteers themselves. Whether you are a family member or caregiver for someone with a mental health condition — or have the lived experience yourself — volunteering can be a positive step toward improving your health and yield many benefits:

    • Reducing Stress
      My work with NAMI demonstrates the ways in which volunteering can counteract the effects of stress, anger and anxiety. This kind of work was my first exploration into long-term volunteerism — and, as is my nature, I sometimes felt a little anxious as I prepared to lead an affiliate board meeting or teach or speak to a group on behalf of NAMI. But I always rose to the occasion because the cause mattered so greatly to me. And afterward, I would feel exhilarated and thrilled by my accomplishments. Gradually, my focus on the work, and the gratitude I received from it, surpassed other issues in my life that caused negative emotions. There was too much to accomplish and too much to look forward to for me to feel down. Ultimately, I noticed that I slept better at night with the knowledge that I was part of a greater good.
    • Increasing Happiness
      Research has found a correlation between volunteering and happiness. A 2020 study conducted in the United Kingdom found those who volunteered reported being more satisfied with their lives and rated their overall health as better. Respondents who volunteered for at least one month also reported having better mental health than those who did not volunteer.
    • Developing Confidence
      Volunteering is an opportunity to develop confidence and self-esteem. Your role as a volunteer can also give you a sense of pride and identity, something that can be hard to come by for people with a mental health diagnosis. The better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to have a positive view of your life and future. Moreover, I’ve found that the sense of accomplishment from serving others can raise self-esteem and self-confidence.
    • Finding Purpose
      In times when you feel lost, volunteering can give you a sense of purpose. Dedicating time to a cause can give you new direction and allow you to find meaning in something unexpected. It can also take your mind off your own troubles while keeping you mentally stimulated.

      I served for years as the president of my local NAMI affiliate’s board. I was the family and caregiver support group facilitator and, to this day, offer my services as a NAMI Family-to-Family certified instructor. My passion for offering education and support for people with lived experience and their families hasn’t waned because the need hasn’t waned.

      The nights after I taught a class, led a support group meeting, or gave an interview to the local newspaper were the nights I felt most balanced and fulfilled. Knowing I am making a difference to any degree is the greatest feeling in the world.

 

Getting Started Volunteering

In 2018, my long-time friend, psychologist Terri L. Lyon, hoped to create an easy-to-follow roadmap for people to identify the cause they are most passionate about (because focusing on one issue is more effective) and determine how to use the gifts they already possess to make a difference for that cause. With me as her editor, she published the book “What’s On Your Sign?” in which she introduced her unique “5-Step Activism Path.” The steps are:

  1. Find your passion by creating a vision of how you want to change the world
  2. Identify the unique gifts you can bring to this activism
  3. Craft a unique activism opportunity ideally suited to you
  4. Monitor your long-term effectiveness
  5. Stay motivated and avoid burnout

Perhaps these steps seem intimidating at first glance — but with reflection and time, they can lead to a meaningful new path. One example of following these steps is Knoxville jewelry artist, Christinea Beane. As someone with mental illness, Christinea makes jewelry for other people struggling with their mental health, to offer hope, raise awareness and remind them that they are not alone.

As I address in the book I co-wrote with Dr. Lyon, “Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism,” we can’t underestimate the personal and wide-reaching impacts of volunteering and activism, particularly in the mental health field. Your work could not only boost your emotional well-being, it could also be a critical step toward ending stigma, achieving parity, and increasing mental health services and support. You can make a difference.

 

Trish Lockard has been a volunteer for NAMI Tennessee since 2014. Mental health care became her personal passion following her family’s experience with mental illness. Trish is a nonfiction editor, specializing in memoir, and a nonfiction writing coach at Strike The Write Tone. Contact Trish at strikewritetone@gmail.com.