An investigation into the benefits of volunteering on mental health


The 1997 National Survey of volunteering defines volunteering as: An activity which involves spending time, unpaid, doing something which aims to benefit someone (individuals or​​ groups) other than, or in addition to, close relatives, or to the benefit of the environment.1


Based on this definition, it is clear that volunteering is founded on the principle of altruism, giving of yourself with the sole aim of helping others. That being said, various studies and related literature seem to suggest that Volunteering isn’t necessarily a one-way street in terms of the flow of benefit. In particular there is empirical evidence that supports the idea that Volunteering can be beneficial to volunteers who suffer with mental health conditions.​​ 


So just how can volunteering benefit volunteers with mental health conditions?


The benefits incurred by volunteers with mental health conditions are predicated on long standing sociological arguments that there is a link between social integration and subjective evaluations of well-being.2


Those who suffer with mental health conditions often become withdrawn or isolated and consequently experience a loss of social roles and thus social integration. There is empirical evidence to suggest that this loss of roles has a negative impact on men and women.3


The negative impact associated with a loss of social integration can be further compounded by the enforced idleness that ensues. The resultant loss of roles and isolation leaves those suffering with mental health conditions feeling disconnected and with nothing to occupy their mind or time other than their illness and daily struggles. ​​ This is exacerbated by the fact that it has been observed that those with mental illness can struggle to use their​​ time meaningfully. This can lead to demoralisation, a breakdown of habits, physical deterioration and a loss of abilities.4


Respondents of a survey carried out as part of an investigation into the benefits of volunteering on mental health reported that their mental health difficulties had a variety of negative effects on their lives, including unemployment, a lack of confidence and motivation, an inability to concentrate, difficulties in trusting people, an inability to make or sustain friendships, and feelings of isolation, frustration and anxiety.5

This all sounds rather gloomy, however as I mentioned above, volunteering can help to alleviate and revert any such negative impact resulting​​ from the breakdown of social integration associated with mental illness. In fact in one survey of volunteering by people with experience of mental health problems, carried out by the National Centre of Volunteering 80 % of respondents reported a positive​​ effect on mental health and well being, agreeing that volunteering had done much to improve their mental health.


So in what ways has volunteering been reported to improve volunteers mental health?​​ 


Volunteering can help to:


Provide structure, direction,​​ meaningful activity, a sense of purpose and achievement, interest and improved confidence and self-esteem


Volunteering can provide all of the above. It can remedy the enforced idleness and difficulty in spending time meaningfully experienced by people with mental health conditions by providing structure and direction, meaningful activity, a sense of purpose, interest and achievement. ​​ It can provide a self-validating experience and foster a belief in being able to make a difference. This in turn can bring​​ about improvements in confidence and self esteem as evidenced in the findings of Woodside and Luis (1997)​​ in their evaluation of a supported volunteering scheme for people with schizophrenia.6


Help people cope better with their everyday​​ lives


One study found that volunteering helped volunteers to perform better in their own daily lives.7


Increase social integration and widen social networks


As mentioned earlier, loss of social roles and isolation can be a detrimental side effect of mental illness. Volunteering can aid people who​​ suffer with mental health conditions to counteract such effects by regaining social roles and ties and becoming a more integrated member of the community. This, along with improving the volunteers subjective evaluation of his or her well being8, can help them to strengthen existing friendships, forge new ones, and in doing bolster and expand their support network, exposing them to people with common interests, neighbourhood resources, and fun and fulfilling activities.9​​ 


Peer support volunteering in particular, has a specific social component which has been shown to offer its own unique benefit, in that it allows for volunteers to “make a connection” with people who are experiencing similar difficulties as the volunteers themselves. ​​ It is evidenced in one study that this shared “connection” contributed to reducing the symptoms of depression experienced by the volunteers involved prior to volunteering.


Improves family relationships


A study carried out which compared older volunteers with older non-volunteers showed that those who volunteered had better relationships with their family. ​​ According to Dr Rachel Casiday, lecturer at the Department​​ of Voluntary Sector Studies at the​​ University of Wales, “This may be because their care-giving role carries over into personal relationships and makes older volunteers more independent and less reliant on their family.”​​ 10


Not only has​​ volunteering been shown to improve volunteers mental health, it has also been proven to have positive effect on their physical health, as well as conferring many practical benefits.


The benefits of volunteering on physical health


Volunteering has also been reported to induce positive physical effects in patricipants. Such benefits include, reduced stress, lower blood pressure and a longer lifespan. There is speculation that volunteering which increases physical activity can help to promote better cardiovascular health and volunteering with an emphasis on more cerebral activities can aid in maintaining mental acuity, specifically memory and thinking skills, according to Rodlescia Sneed, a doctoral candidate in social and health psychology at Carnegie Mellon​​ University and lead author of the study, Psychology and Aging.11


Other studies have shown that volunteering can lessen the symptoms of chronic pain and heart disease,12​​ and it has even been suggested that volunteering can promote positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness which are followed by longer periods of calm and can eventually lead to better well being.13



The Practical benefits of volunteering


There are many practical benefits to volunteering also. It provides an opportunity to develop new skills and hone existing ones, such as teamwork, communication, problem solving, project planning,​​ task management, public speaking, organisation, interpersonal, marketing, IT etc.​​ 


It can afford you the chance to gain experience in a particular field of work or role you may feel you have an interest in, regarding​​ potential future employment, without having to make a long-term commitment.


It also facilitates exposure to professional organistaions and industry contacts, internships and training opportunities, which can open up further opportunities and increase your​​ employability, should you wish to consider moving from voluntary work to paid work.


So with so many reported benefits, why aren’t you volunteering?


If you are reading this article and thinking that, while you can see the potential benefits of volunteering, you still have concerns about whether or not to volunteer, don’t worry, you are not alone! One study reported the concerns volunteers had before they embarked on a period of volunteering and three main concerns were articulated by a large number of those involved. ​​ The concerns were:


  • Inability to pay for expenses,


  • Lack of confidence in themselves and their skills


  • Worry about people’s reactions to their mental health history


These are all valid concerns for anyone suffering with a mental health​​ condition. That being said, they really needn’t deter you from volunteering should you want to.​​ 


With regard to expenses, you may find that the organisation you choose to volunteer for will cover expenses such as travel and lunch.


In terms of lack of confidence and worry regarding peoples attitudes and reactions to mental health, while I will admit it is not a concern which is as easily allayed, you may find that in reality the situation is far better than you imagine.​​ 

If for example you volunteer for a​​ mental health charity, you are likely to find yourself in a position where those around you have experience and a very good understanding of mental health in general and are likely to be supportive and amenable to any specific needs or difficulties you may have regarding your volunteering.​​ 


It is not just mental health charities that can offer such an environment. Even if you opt to volunteer for a charity outside of mental health, with campaigns such as Mind and Rethink’s “Time to Change”, attitudes regarding mental health are changing and people are becoming more aware and enlightened. You may find that they offer an equally supportive and understanding environment in which to volunteer, so don’t be afraid to volunteer for such organisations, particularly if you have an interest in the work they do or the particular role they may be able to offer you.


Anyone starting something new, particularly those who may have been out of work for a period of time as a result of mental illness will undoubtedly experience doubts regarding their ability and a lack of confidence. Charities and organisations will be sensitive to this, there will be less pressure and more flexibility (there may even be the option of working from home, depending on the role of course) than with a paid job and they will be happy with whatever help you can offer. You are likely to find an easy going and encouraging environment in which you can build up your confidence, taking things at your own pace.


I hope that goes some way to alleviating some of the worries and concerns you may have regarding volunteering. If so, now all that is left to do is to get involved.​​ 


How to get involved


It has been noted as part of a Study into the benefits of volunteering on those with mental health conditions that people with mental health conditions were more likely to volunteer if; information was made available to them, they were supported in approaching organisations regarding volunteering, and they received continued support throughout their volunteering.​​ 14


I have only just begun volunteering, so it is a little too early for me to have felt the reported benefits, however I can attest to the fact that in my experience, being put in touch with people who’s job it is to assist people with mental health conditions in finding work, whether paid or voluntary, made getting into volunteering a much less daunting task than it would have been otherwise.


Consequently, it would be my advice that if you read this article and feel you would like to get involved in some form of volunteering, the best way to go about it would be to speak with your Doctor or care co-ordinator and ask them to put you in touch with the relevant organisations.​​ 




In conclusion it is evidenced in a​​ number of studies that volunteering can have a positive effect on those with mental health conditions. These benefits are multifaceted, helping to improve mental health, physical health and more practically, future career prospects. ​​ Most of the fears, worries and barriers prospective volunteers cite when expressing a reluctance to volunteer are in reality unfounded, or if present, are not to the extent envisioned by the prospective volunteer, and are certainly not insurmountable.


Consequently, if you​​ suffer with a mental health condition and feel inclined to give volunteering a go, it may be well worth your while discussing it with your Doctor or mental health professional. If they feel it a good idea, and you are ready to give it a shot, you too could​​ avail of the many benefits it has to offer.






Institute For Volunteering, “Volunteering and Mental Health,” Institute For Volunteering, 2003, accessed 13/08/2015,​​


Steven Howlet, “Volunteering and mental health: a literature review,” VAJ 2004 (vol 6, number 2), Institute For Volunteering, 2004, accessed 13/08/2015,​​


Stephanie Watson, “Volunteering may be good for body and mind,” Harvard Health Publication, Harvard Medical School, 2013, accessed 13/08/2015,​​


NHS, “Should I Volunteer?” NHS UK, 2015, accessed 13/08/2015,​​


Mental Health Foundation, “Altruism,” Mental Health Foundation, 2015, accessed, 13/08/2015,​​


Joanna Saisan, M.S.W., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Gina Kemp, M.A., “Volunteering and​​ its Surprising benefits,” Help Guide.ORG, 2015, accessed 13/08/2015,​​



Age UK, “Volunteering may help you live longer,” Age UK, 2013, accessed, 13/08/2015,​​


Aimee Meade, “Volunteering + social impact = mental health improvement,” The Guardian, 2014, accessed, 13/08/2015,​​


Kate Rubin, “DOING GOOD IS GOOG FOR YOU, 2013, Health and Volunteering Study, UNITEDHEALTH GROUP, 2013, accessed, 13/08/2015,​​






​​ Steven Howlet, “Volunteering and mental health: a literature review,” VAJ 2004 (vol 6, number 2), Institute For Volunteering, 2004, accessed 13/08/2015,​​


​​ ibid


​​ ibid


​​ ibid


​​ Institute For Volunteering, “Volunteering and Mental Health,” Institute For Volunteering, 2003, accessed 13/08/2015,​​


​​ Howlett op.cit.


​​ NHS, “Should I Volunteer?” NHS UK, 2015, accessed 13/08/2015,​​



​​ Howlett op.cit.


​​ Joanna Saisan, M.S.W., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Gina Kemp, M.A., “Volunteering and its Surprising benefits,” Help Guide.ORG, 2015, accessed 13/08/2015,​​


​​ NHS op.cit.


​​ Stephanie Watson, “Volunteering may be good for body and mind,” Harvard Health Publication, Harvard Medical School, 2013, accessed 13/08/2015,​​


​​ Joanna Saisan, M.S.W., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Gina Kemp, M.A. op.cit.


​​ Mental Health Foundation, “Altruism,” Mental Health Foundation, 2015, accessed, 13/08/2015,​​


​​ Institute For Volunteering, op.cit.

Back to top
%d bloggers like this: