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Mental Health

Mental Health: The One Thing That Worked for Me

When my undergrad friends hear me say the word volunteering they frequently scoff and retort with “I haven’t done any volunteering since my 40 hours in High School”. About a year ago, I would have answered the same thing. A year ago, I struggled with my mental health and pined over the dread of finding direction and the what do I do with my life dilemma that I know most of my fellow undergrads also experience. I remember having thoughts of it’s just not for me, I don’t have the time, what would I even do as a volunteer, I don’t know where to start, and who cares. At the time, I found these thoughts distressing because I have an inward set of standards that I like to hold myself to; I’d like to believe I’m a good person and believing that makes me feel good.

Thus, just under a year ago when my dear friend – who was participating in the volunteer internship program (VIP) and was trying to get me to see this exact argument I’m about to make – informed me of a particular opportunity that sounded interesting but particularly difficult. It was an opportunity that incited an immediate that’s not for me thought, mixed with a few more I don’t have the time thoughts and it just sounds too hard to handle. I shrugged it off as I usually did and as most people usually do when they don’t feel confident in their abilities. I remember laying in bed and having this quiet thought to myself that contested the rest: but what if I did?


On a whim, I e-mailed the volunteer coordinator. I received the package, sent in my resume, had a phone interview, and on and on, all the while I became both more anxious and more excited to dip my hands into what seemed to be something only really well trained, altruistic people did. The training was terrifying and the actual volunteering itself even more so – as my friend who had mentioned this opportunity last year is now currently experiencing as she begins her journey into the volunteering placement.

By now, if you’re still reading, I’m sure you’re at the so what stage of thought. You’ve been patient so far but I implore that you stick with me just a little longer.


Why do we volunteer? There are so many touted benefits that I’m sure you’ve heard before: a sense of community; the benefit of helping others; saving costs for non-profit organizations; acquiring new skills; networking and meeting new people; beefing up your transcript, etc. Here are some you may not have thought of: an increase in physical activity; a sense of purpose or pride; discovering new interests (especially for those of us who are asking ourselves the what next questions); voluntourism, and mental health benefits.


There’s a plethora of research on how volunteering affects mental health, but one serious question remains: does volunteering make you happier, or do happier people volunteer? This is a classic example of a causal-arrow question.  It’s nearly impossible to stage an experiment where you assign one group to volunteering and another group to not volunteering and try to discern whether mental health is the cause or the effect. But many studies show that, despite multiple research difficulties, there is a clear positive correlation between volunteering and mental health. Kaleigh Rogers points out the positive effects on blood pressure, lowered risk of hypertension, and lowered symptoms of depression, calling volunteering the “best kept secret for mental health”.


But so what, right? Why does any of this matter?


I found that volunteering helped sweep away some of the negative self-talk I was constantly engaging in – in particular, thoughts of I’m useless or I’m worthless. I did – forgive the cliché – feel that I had gained some small sense of purpose. I had acquired a usefulness that I had not experienced before in terms of my self-standards. While I had believed that being a good person meant others seeing you as a good person, ultimately it became a way to serve myself, and convince the depression demon within me that I was good.

The work was difficult, but I was able to realize that even though no one was asking me to do this thing for my community, I felt as though I was finally allowed to pat myself on the back and think I’m a good person. It may not be that volunteering made me a good person or directly made me happy but investing in my self-standards in this way slowly had a very clear, positive effect on my mental health. I ultimately decided to take VIP as well, and now I immensely enjoy two different volunteer placements.


Nearly a year later, I still struggle with the stresses of school and life and all the other jazz, but the one thing that has honestly changed is the way that I feel about myself. I’ve started sponsoring a kid, donating to a new organization every month, and seeking out more opportunities to better myself. I think at first, I did it in part because I wanted others to see me as my own ideal good person, but it was myself that I was trying to impress – and in doing so my mental health has improved far more than counselling and medications have in the last four years.


In closing, while the V word definitely elicits a groan and a shrug from most of us, it seems to be that volunteering can have serious positive effects on mental health, and in particular the way that you feel about yourself. There’s still so many questions to be answered, like whether it’s healthy people that volunteer or that volunteering helps people get healthy, but as an aspiring Psychologist I have to share this wisdom with my fellow struggling undergrads: if you come across an opportunity and you think it’s not for me or so what, just ask yourself one more thing: but what if I did?




Chey is a Psychology Student at the University of Windsor with a Minor in French Studies. She is a community volunteer and an Editor/Writer for the UWindsor HC branch. She hopes to inspire and support others and aspires to help the days become a little brighter for people finding themselves in the dark.
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