Volunteering for better mental health

“Becoming a volunteer is good for your mental health and emotional wellbeing."

It’s not just something we say to encourage people to volunteer, it’s true and research has proven it.

People who volunteer, and the organisations they volunteer with, are often a lifeline to vulnerable people, providing support in many different ways. So, volunteering has an endless number of benefits to people in the communities these valuable volunteers serve. But what about the volunteers themselves? What do they get out of it? The benefits to volunteers themselves are just as important, as if they didn’t enjoy it, they wouldn’t do it.

So why do they do it?

The ‘Time Well Spent’ report by NCVO says that the top motivation for volunteering was wanting to improve things or help people, and those who began volunteering more recently said that “making a difference” is the main reason they’re like to continue. Other reasons included a sense of personal achievement, meeting new people, increase in confidence, and improving mental health.

Here, for 2023’s Mental Health Awareness Week, we’ll be focussing on that last point: improving mental health.

How does volunteering improve mental health?

There have been various studies on this topic, and you can find them all over the internet. And if there were no mental health benefits to volunteering, there’d be no research, no statistics, and no reports. But we don’t expect you to go searching for this research, we’ll help you to understand how volunteering can help you to improve, and maintain, your mental health.

Firstly, the benefits of volunteering can vary in different ways and from person to person. For example, people that are living with a chronic illness or disability, older people, and those from deprived areas generally appear to get the most out of their volunteering roles. And according to What Works Wellbeing, people with a lower wellbeing report that volunteering regularly has given them more ‘life satisfaction’. Studies also show that volunteering can bring a new sense of purpose and a sense of belonging.

Meet new people

Getting out and about and meeting other people can help reduce loneliness and isolation. We’re social creatures by nature; our minds and bodies crave human interaction, and being sociable is proven to increase feelings of happiness and reduce stress. And there’s no better way to form new friendships with like-minded people than by becoming a volunteer. Chances are, you’ll be volunteering for a cause you’re passionate about or one that’s close to your heart, this instantly puts you in contact with people that feel the same way; shared passions are a great conversation starter!

Without contact with others, we become lonely and feel isolated, which can lead to (or worsen) mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. If you suffer from social anxiety, volunteering can really help you to become more social in a way you can control and could even help you to enjoy being around other people again.

Boost your confidence and self-esteem

At VAST we believe that everyone has something to give, and you don’t really need any particular skills or qualifications to volunteer. This provides a great opportunity for you to try new things in new environments, getting help and guidance from the people around you. In a volunteer role, you also have a chance to learn something new, gain new skills and expand your knowledge. Your belief in your self will increase and you’ll feel more positive about your own abilities.

The more you volunteer, the more confident you’ll become in yourself and your abilities. So, if you do suffer from a lack of confidence or low self-esteem, what better way to boost your self-belief than by helping others in need?

Volunteering can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety

One in six people in the UK suffer from depression and one in ten of us are suffering from an anxiety disorder at any one time. These numbers could actually be much higher though, as many people with a mental illness might not go to the doctors for diagnosis and/or treatment.

Research has proven that volunteering increases the reward areas of our brain and releases the feel-good hormones your body creates. These feel-good hormones then increase positive, relaxed, and happy feelings, helping to reduce the sometimes overwhelming symptoms of anxiety and depression. In fact, the NHS’ ‘Five Steps to Mental Wellbeing’ says that by giving to others and acts of kindness – suggests “volunteering in your community” as one way of giving – can improve your mental health and wellbeing.           

Get more active

Being active and moving about will undoubtedly improve your physical health, but it will also contribute to your mental health and emotional wellbeing too.

Being physically active is another way get those feel-good hormones pumping. And when we say “physical activity,” we don’t mean spending hours in the gym or signing up for a marathon.

In the context of physical activity and volunteering, what we do mean is anything from walking across the road to visit a lonely neighbour or doing a bit of gardening in a local green space to helping at community events in your local area or regularly volunteering with a local voluntary organisation on community walks. However active you can (or want to) be, getting up and about and moving around will generally help you to feel happier, less stressed, and more fulfilled.

Gain a sense of purpose

Feelings of hopelessness and uselessness are common in people suffering from depression and the less you do the worse they become. The worse they become, the less you do. And the cycle goes on and on. Volunteering is a great way of breaking that cycle.

When you help others, it makes you feel good inside, knowing that you’re doing a good deed and that you’ve helped someone out. Especially when that someone shows their gratitude. A simple “thank you” really is good for the soul.

Volunteers are the backbone of the voluntary sector and voluntary and community groups rely heavily on their volunteers to provide the vital support their communities need. Knowing you’re wanted and needed, and being recognised for your contribution to society plays a huge part in giving you a sense of purpose and belonging. Knowing that you’re making a difference to people who need help will help reduce feelings of uselessness.

Start your volunteering journey

Like we’ve said, there are loads of benefits to becoming a volunteer, whether that’s from random acts of kindness, informal volunteering, or from volunteering more frequently. Volunteering can improve overall physical and mental health and wellbeing, by giving our time and energy to volunteer helps others, but it really does help us too.

If you’d like to find out more about volunteering in Stoke-on-Trent or North Staffordshire, please get in touch on 01782 683030 or email [email protected].

To find local volunteering opportunities, please visit our Online Notice Board or register your interest here.

Find out more about starting your volunteer journey here.