Last Wednesday evening I was in an old tube train, in a courtyard in Great Ormond Street, presenting a radio show which played out in rooms all over the hospital. Children could call in and request songs, or sing along - we told jokes and ran a competition to see who could do the best ‘yeehaaa’ (it was cowboy night). I volunteer with Radio Lollipop on Wednesday evenings - either on the radio, or playing up on the wards. Usually I make it along, unless I’m ill, or work runs late. Even when I’m tired and stressed and feel I would much rather go home and crash on the sofa, I know that if I make it along, I’ll feel glad I did later on, and pleased with myself for making the effort.
But there were times in my past when, despite knowing this, it wasn’t so easy to put one foot in front of the other and go where I said I would be. People with depression or anxiety will, of course, recognise the disparity between good times and those when you’re depressed in terms of what you can achieve. The difficulty is when it impacts on others. When I was in good mental health I was enthusiastic, excited and confident to try new things. I would sign up for lots of things, volunteering, new opportunities, social events. Then, when a depressive period hit, I could no longer face going - and usually beat myself up about it as a result. For some people, it's not about having good times and bad, but simply negotiating the gap between the idea of doing something and the actuality of gaining the motivation and conquering the anxiety that leaving the house and engaging in something new involves.
I’m a volunteer who finds volunteering really beneficial for my own mental health - but also recognises that bad mental health can make it harder to motivate yourself to do it. I’m also a volunteer manager who manages volunteers who have a range of mental health difficulties. In fact, given the roles we recruit for, many people get involved specifically because they have struggled in the past.
The main personal motivations for volunteering as a peer advisor are usually one of three. They have been in a difficult situation and recognised that there wasn’t help available to them then, and want to help to provide that for others. They have been in a difficult situation and want to use the knowledge they gained from that experience to give help to others. They feel that in offering support to others, they can also learn skills to apply to their own life. Have a look at this slideshow, from slides eight onwards, to explore this in more depth.
I’m interested in the role that volunteering can play in improving and managing mental health, and what volunteer managers can do to develop that. It’s a huge topic, there’s lots of challenges for everyone involved and this only scratches the surface, so I’d love to hear from others.
Volunteering and mental health/wellbeing
The main study around volunteering and mental health/wellbeing seems to be by the Institute of Volunteering Research in 2003.
In addition, there are a number of valuable case studies and individual experiences on the web. This Mind volunteer speaks about the benefits she thinks volunteering has given her.
Volunteering enables people to make a positive contribution, to gain skills, to feel a sense of achievement and to combat loneliness. If someone is shy or lacks confidence volunteering not only allows them to meet new people, but to meet them in a situation where they have something tangible (the task at hand) to talk about.
Its worth recognising here that the nature of volunteering can sometimes make motivating a depressed mind more of a struggle. Often, the motivating factor which encourages you to do your volunteering is not external, in the same way a wage cut, or job loss would be for a paid job. Instead it is internal - either a sense of the enjoyment you will get from it or a sense of duty. Feeling depressed or anxious can blunt that internal drive to the extent you can’t muster enough motivation to go. On the more positive side of this coin, the external motivating factors influencing a paid job can increase the stress on someone struggling with mental health in a way that perhaps more flexible volunteering does not.
Recently, volunteering has been getting a bad rap from people who have focussed on the lack of external remuneration. People have been using volunteering as synonymous with ‘unpaid work’ - for example in the case of the ‘jobseekers under the bridge’ during the jubilee. But volunteering in the proper sense has its own benefits - a good volunteering opportunity shouldn’t just be paid work without the pay, especially for someone struggling with mental health. A good volunteering opportunity involves doing something for reasons other than money. This can take the pressure off (as mentioned above), enables a whole range of people to do things as a group and helps people to feel positive about themselves and their contribution to the world.
In addition, and this brings me onto some thoughts about managing volunteers, volunteering when you have a mental health problem should, when done well, be a two way process. In return for your skills and time, you can receive the ongoing support to help you develop and improve your own mental health and wellbeing. When you look at it like this, volunteering (particularly in the context of mental health) becomes something entirely different to unpaid work. Instead of the one way process ‘unpaid work’ implies, volunteering becomes a mutually beneficial process which can be used to positively manage mental health.
Managing volunteers who struggle with mental health
In this context, I can only speak from the perspective of my role managing volunteers at YouthNet. I think that here, due to the nature of the work we do, and the type of roles we recruit for, we are in a different position to many volunteer managers.
As mentioned above, we recruit volunteers for roles where they will be supporting others online, often as a peer supporter of some kind. As a result of this, we find that a number of our volunteers want to get involved because, at some point, they have struggled with their own mental wellbeing.
For many volunteers, the training they receive can help them in their own lives too. They are not just getting the documented benefits of volunteering in the research above, but extra benefits that come from the nature of the training they are doing and the techniques for managing emotions, relationships and moods that they are learning to pass on to others. The links here explain more about the training we do.
Finally, the nature of the support work we do in our team means that we are in a better position than many to offer the support that volunteers might need in this area. There is perhaps an interesting balance to be struck here. Our volunteer roles are offered not to save us time or money (they often don’t) but to benefit both the user (through extended and personal peer support) and the volunteer. Both are, after all, young people, and young people benefiting from our services in one way or another.
As a team who works daily in both offering support to users, training young volunteers to offer peer support and supporting the young volunteers themselves, we often find our roles overlapping - using our skills in online support to help a volunteer who is struggling with their own mental health. Do we need a line which delineates whether a young person is a service user or a volunteer? Perhaps this is a line we need to be aware of ourselves, but only so that we can better support individual volunteers on a case by case basis. It would be a shame, after all, for a volunteer to lose out on the support we could offer because we stuck too rigidly to the line. But at the same time, we need to be aware when a young person is in a position where they would be better served using our services rather than volunteering for them.
As mentioned, at YouthNet we’re in a position to use our skills and knowledge to support volunteers struggling with mental health and make their experience positive and rewarding - and to ensure our users benefit from their insights and skills. However, I have come across many roles where this isn’t the case. For example, in a finance office which purposefully recruits full time volunteers who it was felt could not manage in a paid job, I have seen the volunteer manager recruited for their accountancy skills, and thrown into a job where what he needed most was understanding of mental health and people management. While the volunteers had somewhere to go during the day, they were also often confused and frustrated or just absent. If a volunteer had chosen to open up to their manager about their mental health needs, how their past experiences influence their ability to manage and why they needed more flexible working hours, the manager wouldn’t have known how best to respond. In the IVR study, volunteers reported that sometimes they found it difficult to talk to staff about mental health issues and when they were struggling to cope with their volunteering.
I believe in developing an openness and flexibility with the volunteers I manage. I was recently touched that a volunteer felt more able to open up to me because they had read my blog and I’m hoping that now, we will be much better able to work together to establish a volunteering role which will benefit both them and our users. Having confidence in yourself and in your ability to do the role can be a really big barrier. Our role is to help people build that confidence - in themselves, in the role and in our support. I am aware personally that there is a balance to be struck when volunteering alongside managing your emotional wellbeing. This involves self awareness even when well - remembering that your motivation can wax and wane, and signing up for only a manageable amount of volunteering. It’s recognising that if you genuinely can’t make a session then it’s ok to be gentle with yourself and not beat yourself up about it. However, it’s also recognising that other times it’s worth sticking one foot in front of the other and giving it a go even if, in the moment, its the last thing you feel like doing. Trusting that even if it doesn’t feel like it now, afterwards you will feel proud and happy with yourself for the achievement and the positive impact you've had. I’d like this to be something that we can help our volunteers to appreciate too. In doing this, I think that we can genuinely help to improve volunteers emotional wellbeing through the work they do with us.
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