Volunteering – the simple act of giving your time free of charge – is hugely beneficial to society. There are over 160,000 voluntary organisations in the UK, and estimates of how much volunteering saves the UK economy each year range between £24 billion and £45 billion. As many as 93% of us benefit from some sort of voluntary activity over the course of a year.
But could there also be benefits for the person giving their time, particularly in terms of mental health and wellbeing?
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 thoroughly. 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 that does exist 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 small groups of people with specific mental health difficulties. Many positive outcomes have been seen, with people reporting that volunteering had helped them in their recovery.
Overall, this paints a picture of volunteering as something that 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 it might help
As a mental health nurse, I have seen first-hand some of the benefits people have enjoyed 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.
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. 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. Sites and tools such as the Volunteer Centre Finder, Do-it and VolunteerMatch 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.
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