How Volunteering Can Improve Mental Health


If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, getting out and getting involved in things can be good for your mood, your sense of self-worth, and your ability to just go and do things. Unfortunately, taking those steps can be difficult, especially if you don’t have an existing network of people to be involved with. For many people, taking part in volunteer programs can be extremely valuable for mental health, both because it forces getting out and interacting with others, allows you to be valuable to others and to foster a sense of pride around that, and to get back on your feet and switch focus to things outside of yourself.

At the same time, volunteering isn’t for everyone. Even small volunteer jobs can result in a significant amount of stress and responsibility. If you’re not in a headspace capable of managing that, you shouldn’t be doing it. Therefore, it’s important to pace yourself, to move into volunteer jobs as you can take them on, and to continue prioritizing your own mental health treatment and progress first.

Building a Sense of Self-Worth

People with mental health problems face significant guilt, stigma, and shame. Feelings of inadequacy and incompetence pushed by depression and anxiety erode the sense of self. Volunteering is an act of giving back, of creating value, and of helping others. That remains true whether you’re volunteering helping people directly via something like working at a soup kitchen, volunteering at a homeless shelter, knitting blankets to donate, etc., or volunteering picking up litter, cleaning spaces, taking care of animals in a shelter, etc.

Volunteering directly works to build a sense of self-worth and achievement, giving you positive accomplishments to feel good about. This can help with feeling good about yourself, with feeling worthy of other interactions, and with feeling like you can do things again.

Occupying Time

If you’re just getting out of mental health treatment, are home on sick leave, or are taking unpaid time off work to recover, having that time can be great. Eventually, having nothing to do can be bad for your mental health. Filling your days with some light volunteer work can help you to rebuild your ability to deal with stress, to occupy time in a meaningful way, and to have things to look forward to and to get you out of the house.

Of course, if you’re working and constantly busy, this is likely not the case at all. In fact, many forms of volunteering might be too time-consuming for you. For example, if you’re a busy professional, you might be better off looking into ways to volunteer that take up a minimum of time – such as writing complaint letters, coaching youth over video calls, etc.

To some extent, that does mean matching the volunteer work to your time and energy. If you have a lot of free time, taking time to spend a few days at a volunteer job can be great for you – even if only for a few hours a day. If you don’t have that time, look for faster ways to help others.

Meeting New People

Volunteer work normally puts you into teams, where you work with others to achieve goals ranging from cleaning up a city block to helping people mow their lawns to feeding people or providing blankets. The thing is, no matter what you’re doing, you’re not doing it alone. Instead, you’re working with others, meeting new people, and taking part in social activities. That can be extremely good for your mental health, both because you get rewarding social activities and because you get them without having to make long-term commitments that require having good mental health.

If you can show up, take part in an activity, and contribute, even in a small way, you get those social interactions. That’s important because people are, at heart, social creatures. We need interactions with others, and we need them to be positive.

An Intermediary Between Work

If you’ve taken time off work for mental health, had a burnout, or are on sick leave for mental health, building back up to being able to go to work can be difficult. Volunteering is a good intermediary, because it allows you to commit to partially spending your time on responsibilities and tasks, and to do so in a positive way that benefits others and your mental health at the same time.

Here, you can simply start volunteering for a few days a week and then scale that up – while informing the place you’re volunteering at when you intend to go back to work. You might find that you have difficulties with some aspects of going back to regular work. E.g., commute. That gives you time to learn to cope with problems you do have in a relatively safe space, with few consequences. E.g., if you find something stressful when volunteering, you can take steps to learn how to cope with it so that when you do go back to work, you have those coping mechanisms worked out.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that these two are similar or at all comparable. You might have trouble at work because of management practices, colleagues, or how work is handled. But, allowing yourself space to build back up into a normal working routine is a lot easier on yourself than immediately gong back into it when you think you feel well enough.

Giving Feels Good

People who volunteer are more likely to be happy, more likely to have a positive outlook on life, and more likely to feel like they’re doing something with their life. In one study, volunteering was shown to actively improve how people rate their happiness. For example, the more adults volunteer, the more likely they are to start rating themselves as happier on average. That’s also in part because volunteering triggers the reward circuit in the brain, helping the body to produce hormones and neurotransmitters it needs to feel happiness. In fact, volunteering, donating to charity, or even taking care of someone’s pets or garden for them results in a dopamine high that can last for some time. And, over time, the brain producing more dopamine means you’re more likely to produce it – resulting in increased overall happiness.

Volunteering is a good fit if you’ve been to treatment, you’re relatively stable, and you’re looking for ways to boost your overall mood and health. If you haven’t been to mental health treatment yet, getting that help is also important.

If you want to talk more about your mental health, how to improve it, and what behavioral therapy can do for long-term coping mechanisms, the mental health staff at Compassion Recovery can help. We’re committed to helping our patients learn coping mechanisms, improve their quality of life, and build long-term and sustainable habits for themselves.

If you or a loved one is struggling, help is there. And, it can help you to get back to normal. If you need help with mental health treatment, drug rehab, or alcohol rehab Compassion Recovery Center is here to help. Contact us to ask about our mental health programs and how we can support your specific requirements as you move into treatment.

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