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Volunteering: Good for Others, Good for Yourself

     

Helping others not only benefits those being served but also has mental and physical health benefits for the people volunteering their time. It can bring a sense of belonging, improve self-esteem, distract us from our own problems and help us keep things in perspective. Volunteering can create positive memories we can draw on later and encourage others to repeat the good deed, contributing to a more positive community. Doing things for others can also help reduce stress and boost your immune system.

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These mental health and well-being benefits seem to exist for people of different ages and life circumstance, from teens in school, to young adults with disabilities, to older adults in retirement.

For older adults, actively volunteering can improve quality of life and lower the risk of cognitive impairment. Research reported in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found that volunteering regularly over time decreased the risk of cognitive impairment in adults age 60 and over. Other research has associated volunteering among seniors with reduced symptoms of depression, better health and fewer functional limitations. One study found that among older adults, giving support to others had twice the positive effect on perceived health status compared to receiving support.

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People with mental health and cognitive challenges can benefit from volunteering in several ways. A study looking specifically volunteering among youth and young adults with disabilities found that while they are often willing and able to volunteer, and can benefit from volunteering, they frequently encounter challenges such as finding suitable positions, transportation difficulties and negative attitudes from potential supervisors. A review of studies looking at volunteering in the care of people with serious mental illness found that companion care benefits the individuals with mental illness by increasing their social-community involvement, and also benefitted the volunteers.

A mother of son with severe mental illness wrote in a NAMI Personal Stories post about how volunteering benefited her. While her son needs a lot of her attention and time, she describes her volunteer work as giving her the strength to keep going, the ability to keep hoping and “time to refurbish my soul.” Volunteering also allowed her to connect and build relationships within the community that could help her son.

Adolescents may reap benefits from volunteering too. A study of high school students volunteering weekly with elementary school students found the participants had both improved moods and reduced risk factors for cardiovascular disease after volunteering for two months.

One study did find that not everyone may benefit equally from volunteering. The positive effects of volunteering were less evident among people with a less positive (more cynical) outlook. They found that helping behavior and volunteering can buffer the effects of stress on health for people with positive views of others, but not for those with a more cynical world view.

If you want to increase your giving or volunteering you can start by looking for simple acts of kindness such as helping an elderly neighbor, contact organizations working for a cause of interest to you or contact your local volunteer coordination agency.

References

  • Anderson ND, et al. The benefits associated with volunteering among seniors: a critical review and recommendations for future research. Psychol Bull, 2014, 140(6):1505-33.
  • Cattan M, Hogg E, Hardill I. Improving quality of live in ageing populations: what can volunteering do? Maturitas, 2011, 70(4):328-32.
  • Hallett C., et al. Volunteering in the care of people with severe mental illness: as systematic review. BMC Psychiatry. 2012, 12:226.
  • Infurna FJ, Okun MA, Grimm KJ. Volunteering is associated with lower risk of cognitive impairment. J Am Geriatric Soc. 2016, 64(11):2263-2269.
  • Lindsay S. A scoping review of the experiences, benefits, and challenges involved in volunteer work among youth and young adults with a disability. Disability and Rehabilitation. 2016, 38(16):1533-1546.
  • McKenzie, M. Personal Stories: Volunteering is a Necessity.
  • Momtaz AY, Ibrahim R, Hamid TA. The impact of giving support to others on older adults’ perceived health status. Psychogeriatrics. 2014:14(1):31-7.
  • Poulin MJ. Volunteering predicts health among those who value others; two national studies. Health Psychology. 2014, 33(2):120-9.
  • Schreier, HMC, Schonert-Reichl KA, Chen E. Effect of Volunteering on Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease in Adolescents. JAMA Pediatrics, 2013, 167(4):327-331.

     

 

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