Research and evidence
There have been a number of studies exploring a potential link between volunteering and mental wellbeing. But it’s a difficult area to research. Studies often rely on people’s own accounts of their experiences rather than scientific data. Also, ‘volunteering’ is a fairly loose term, so it’s hard to compare the results of different studies.
However, the research we do have seems to show that volunteering has a positive effect on mental health in terms of managing depression, and enhancing life satisfaction and wellbeing. This research mainly consists of small, local studies. In many of these, volunteering schemes have been used like treatment programmes for people with specific mental health conditions. Many positive outcomes have been seen, with people reporting that volunteering helped them in their recovery.
Overall, this paints a picture that volunteering can be valuable for the volunteer, as well as for the people who benefit from their help.
More research is needed to confirm these findings, and to try and work out why volunteering has such a positive effect on our mental health.
How volunteering might help
As a mental health nurse, I’ve seen first-hand some of the benefits people have gained from volunteering, which may lie behind these research findings.
- Sense of purpose. Helping others can be rewarding and satisfying, and can reaffirm your sense of value and purpose.
- Social opportunities. Volunteering can provide an opportunity to make friends and develop your social life. There’s an increasing understanding that social relationships promote mental wellbeing, and volunteering is a great way to build these.
- Learning. Volunteering often involves learning new skills, which in itself brings a sense of fulfilment and achievement.
- Chance of employment. Many volunteering schemes can open doors in terms of employment opportunities. Finding a job (or a new job) can carry with it all the benefits outlined above.
- A distraction. If you’re experiencing anxiety or depression, and are preoccupied with negative thoughts, you may find that volunteering simply provides a welcome distraction. Having an activity to focus on can take your mind off the negative thoughts and help you to live in the moment.
- Physical activity – Some volunteering activities may involve physical effort, for example, gardening or sports coaching. The benefits of exercise for mental health are well established.
We asked some of our own people, here at Bupa, to share why they volunteer and how it enhances their life.
Lucy Brown, Clinical Director of Nursing, regularly volunteers at her children’s school: “I’m a paediatric trained nurse and I love educating and empowering children to think about the possibilities and opportunities in the world. Plus working with children is so much fun! Teaching CPR training to baby shark was such fun!”
Greg Swarbrick, Head of Healthcare Outcomes, has just finished a three-year volunteering stint in his local community: “Doing something good for the local community, as well as understanding what the issues are locally, has been very satisfying for me. I feel more ‘plugged in’ to the area where I live, creating a new social network, and seeing tangible benefits for schools, churches, construction and care homes as the result of my time and effort.”
If you’re interested in volunteering, it’s worth thinking carefully about what you want to do. Voluntary organisations operate in all walks of life, so you should be able to find something that’s close to your heart.
For example, if you’re a sports fan, see if any local clubs need help. If art or history is more your thing, perhaps there’s a gallery looking for volunteers. If you love to travel, you may be lucky enough to find some overseas opportunities. The more enthusiastic you are about what you’re doing, the more likely you are to keep at it and to enjoy all the benefits volunteering has to offer.
If you’re ready to take the plunge, there are lots of good places to start looking. The following websites and tools can help you find opportunities in your local area.
Organisations such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Volunteering Matters can help you find out more about volunteering in general.