4 Ways Volunteering in the Community Aided My Mental Health

Practical lessons to enrich your life and mental health

When thrown into the first lockdown last year, I decided to do something I’d been thinking about for a long time.

I decided to volunteer at the UK-based mental health charity Woking Mind in Surrey.

I’d always felt slightly guilty about not giving back. Having had my own experiences with poor mental health — and having run my own mental health blog ‘Blognitive Therapy’ for some time — I thought perhaps I could help out.

The role was calling a few people a week, and having a chat with each of them for an hour or so.

Some people were just lonely, and wanted the company. Another voice to break up the day. Others were going through some really rough stuff, especially in the midst of a raging pandemic.

I understood the ravages of poor mental health. I felt suited to the role of ‘Community Wellbeing Caller’. I felt I could bring some of my own strategies to the fore.

The aim was not to make myself feel better, but that was certainly what happened.

Looking Outside of Myself

Honestly, early on I found myself dreading the calls. I didn’t know what to expect. I would arm myself with fact sheets and a notepad, feeling hesitant to dial the number. The fact of my own mental health struggles some days added to this foreboding.

It is sometimes hard to look outside of yourself.

We are all dealing with the fallout of not having our usual social outlets. The pandemic has taken something from us all.

Day’s can often become an endless game of thinking of all the things you’re missing.

But, in speaking to someone else, we get another perspective. We can feel the truth that others are living. And that can pull focus. We see the world from another perspective.

And, sadly, see that other people have it much worse. We don’t want this to be the case, but it does put our qualms into perspective.

I may have dreaded making calls some days. But in pushing myself to be there for someone else, even when feeling sorry for myself, I saw the bigger picture.

If you are feeling overwhelmed in your own life, asking someone else how they are is enough to lift your spirits. And remove you from your own cyclical thoughts.

The simple altruistic act of caring for another is a pathway to a brighter outlook.

Of course, we must look out for ourselves, and only take on what we can. But it is often when we dwell on our personal situation that the issues get worse. Helping others offers a fresh perspective. And you might just offer some advice that could help heal your own wounds.

The next time you’re feeling a bit blue, reach out to someone you care for and give it a go.

Creating A Sense Of Community

Often, we’re so concerned with ourselves, friends and family, that we forget about the wider community. It is little wonder, with the shifting and changing of how we live and work. Rarely do we even get to know our own neighbours.

Through volunteering, I grew a sense of the size and scope of the community around me. And found that so many people don’t have family or friends to rely on.

Either practically or emotionally.

Sometimes it’s not about physical, but emotional closeness.

Whilst I couldn’t go round with supplies, I could offer my attention. Checking in, and reminding them to eat properly, rest well, and drink enough water. Sending them information resources for support and community events. Being a voice for them, an advocate when they require.

In donating my time to a few people each week, for those who might be lonely or need to feel listened to, my eyes were opened. It gave me a greater sense of how to listen and communicate. What suggestions to offer and when. How to navigate difficult subjects.

In the main, I’ve developed a better way of talking to people. Even in my own relationships.

Which brings me on to my next point.

Helping With Personal Relationships

When you sign up for a role like this, they don’t just drop you in. You get training.

You are taught how to build on hard conversations, how to be gentle with the client. You are signposted to better ways to approach difficult questions and subjects. Whether that be matters of suicide, depression or anxiety. And a lot of this is through something called ‘Active Listening

But this gives excellent tools for other areas. And can make communication in your personal life a little easier.

It also helped me to articulate my own thought and feelings in a better way. And I have felt the changes in my own relationships, with friends and family.

Again, helping other people through tough times brings an alternative viewpoint. It also offers training in greater understanding. Of nurturing them with patience and seeking clarity.

You stop trying to get your own point across, and you learn to really listen and respond to the other person. And this is something that can be sadly lacking in our personal relationships. As we feel so desperate to get our own thoughts or feelings across.

We can change this though. And you needn’t have to volunteer to understand the process. Learning the process of active listening will allow you to have better conversations. And arguments that are resolved more fully.

And all it involves is listening more, rather than waiting to speak.

Generating A Sense Of Power

Just the simple act of helping other people can help with your own sense of power. It can make you feel the power you have with assisting change.

It is grass-roots, I’ll give you that. But as Ghandi said,

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

If we worried less about the things we’re powerless against — and focused instead on what we have the power to do — things could be so different!

And we all have the power to make someone’s day a little brighter.

As I said, some days I’ve dreaded making calls. Either because I was feeling tired or low. But I also found talking to (and helping) someone else a powerful antidote. And hearing the change in their voice — from flat or dull to lighter and brighter — always makes a huge difference.

It also comes down to assisting people to see the things they can change in their life. Offering suggestions, asking the right questions.

And also this:

Knowing that Mind has a growing network of caring people, who are willing to take time out to help. It feels so good to belong to a community like this.

Like I said, if we all spent a little more time focusing on what we do have the power to change, life would be so different.

You Don’t Have to Volunteer to Feel Better. But It Helps

I didn’t set out to help myself. I actually felt concerns over how helping others with their mental health might negatively effect my own. Especially if I was already low.

But I didn’t want to let anyone down. So I made it my business to push myself to making the calls. I didn’t shy away from the discomfort.

And each time, I found myself feeling a little lighter.

Even if the conversation was difficult. Even though their struggles were so real. I found it really rewarding to navigate hardships with these people. Exploring little ways they could exercise personal control over feelings or issues.

I also have (virtually) met a lot of kind and caring people, who want to make a difference. And that has restored my faith in society a little.

Don’t get me wrong, there was some emotional turmoil too. If you are an empathic person, it’s hard to hear what people are going through without feeling sad.

But knowing you have the power to help people (even a little) is worth the emotional hangover of a hard conversation. To help someone feel heard, and sympathised with, is often enough to allay some of the stress and anxiety.

I understand that not everyone has the time and resources to volunteer. And you are no less of a good person if you cannot. But hopefully this will serve to highlight the small actions we can take to make the world a better place. And in doing so, help our own sense of wellbeing.

Volunteering has given me an understanding of the ways in which we can make a difference. The small ways that people are able to brighten another’s day.

But not only this. It’s also help me to adapt and change with my own mental health all the more.

Founder & Writer at Blognitive Therapy. Deeply committed to psychology, movement and mental health awareness. Fascinated by pretty much everything else.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store