The Healing Power of Volunteer Work
“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
We all know what volunteer work is, right? The simple act of performing work without receiving payment. People do it for all kind of reasons; to gain experience and advance their careers, to get a shoe-in for a particular job they want, to meet their Centrelink requirements or to support a cause of organisation they believe in. But the reason most people volunteer is to help other people, we call this act of giving altruism and it’s one of the cornerstones of the community services industry. But one factor that’s often ignored is the positive effect that volunteering can have on the psyche and soul of the volunteer. We ignore it because it seems to be at odds with altruism. To volunteer for our own benefit seems selfish, after all aren’t we doing this to help others? Isn’t that the whole point? But in this blog post I’d like to challenge that.
We spend billions of dollars every year on mental health services in an effort to care for Australians who experience challenges with their mental health. We are constantly looking for new ways to help people; tools, strategies and treatments to combat the effects of mental distress on the population. Why can’t we look at volunteering the same way; as a strategy to support people who experience mental health issues? I can tell you first hand... it works.
Volunteering has a powerful impact on the life of the volunteer. Studies show that volunteering makes people better citizens, reduces the incidence of antisocial behaviour, promotes positive health outcomes and helps us to achieve more in our chosen careers. But for me, the most important outcome is on our mental health. Volunteering gives people purpose, we all need to feel useful and we all need to feel like we're part of our community.
When we struggle with our mental health we often become the focal point of the people around us. This can be great because when we are struggling we need their support. If we’re lucky enough to have people around us who care for us, then their care and attention is often one of the foundations of our recovery. But sometimes this can lead to a self-focus which can become quite unhelpful. There needs to be a balance; when we're unwell, people support us, when we're well enough, we need to support others in return. Otherwise we become a bit like a sponge and over time life can lose all meaning.
At the end of the day it’s about social connection. Mental wellbeing and social connection are intrinsically linked and most people judge their life’s worth by the impact they have on the world and the people around them. Everyone wants to leave their mark and they want it to be a positive one. But for those of us who’ve had a life-long battle with mental health issues, we can reach a point where we look back and think, “What have I done with my life? What was it all for? Will anyone remember me when I’m gone?” This can be a startling, and potentially devastating realisation to come to for some people. I know that it was for me.
I realised a long time ago that the key to my mental health and wellbeing was through channelling my attention into the realm of community work and social responsibility. Sometimes it feels like a herculean task, but for the first time in my life I can say that I am truly happy. I never thought that I would be able to say that. But it doesn’t need to be an all or nothing decision and it’s not about being a “bleeding heart”. We can all incorporate altruism into our lives and enhance our mental health. It could be as simple as visiting your grandmother in the nursing home and making her day a little brighter, or you could choose to work one day a month in a Salvos shop, or you could volunteer every week at the RSPCA. It can be as big or small as you want. The point is to make a difference in the lives of your fellow man... or woman... or kitten (if that’s you thing).
If you’re interested in learning more about volunteering, why not check out Volunteering QLD’s website? They have lots of ideas, information and opportunities for everyday people to discover new ways that they can give back to their community and get involved! We're always looking for volunteers at BIG as well. To help prepare and cook our BBQs, clean the centre, help out with the art groups or just sit and talk with the other members. Come and have a chat with Margo or Sam if you're interested. I’ve also included some links to my favourite volunteer organisations below.
1. THE EFFECTS OF VOLUNTEERING ON THE VOLUNTEER
– by John Wilson and Marc Musick
2. DOING GOOD IS GOOD FOR YOU
– by United Health Group
3. VOLUNTEERING AND IT'S SUPRISING BENEFITS
– by Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. and Lawrence Robinson