Can volunteering help strengthen our communities and improve our mental wellbeing?

13 May 2016

Oonagh Aitkens

By Oonagh Aitken, Chief Executive of Volunteering Matters

When I heard that the Mental Health Foundation had picked 'relationships' as the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, I must admit that I felt inspired.

At Volunteering Matters, building strong, inter-connected communities where citizens support each other through life’s challenges is absolutely central to what we do. 

Deflating

Before I travel to our offices in Hackney each morning, I switch on the radio and skim-read the headlines. Too often, I’m left feeling deflated. The mainstream media has a well-documented ‘negativity bias’, and I fear that too many stories about poverty, crime and social division leave us feeling powerless and scared, rather than hopeful and motivated. 

When I arrive at the office, I start to hear a different type of story. I hear that 98% of the beneficiaries of 'Sporting Chance',  our health and wellbeing programme for older men in Middlesbrough, have made new friends since joining the programme, and 42% now visit the doctor less frequently. I don’t doubt that there is a strong link between better social relationships and improved health: it’s a common theme running through so many of our volunteer programmes. 

I’m very fortunate to hear many stories of this kind. Our Volunteers Supporting Families programme, which enables trained volunteers to provide intensive support and mentoring for single parents with children on child protection plans, has made an invaluable difference to the lives of many vulnerable families. In 2015, 65% of parents reported improvements in their emotional wellbeing as a direct result of their relationship with their volunteer mentor, and 53% managed to expand their social network.

The next generation

We also believe that healthy relationships are fundamental to ensuring that the next generation can become confident and secure citizens with healthy values and aspirations.

Our Sex Matters Too project in Wales is a good example of this. We train young volunteers, aged 16-25 years, to deliver workshops on sex and healthy relationships to their peers. These workshops go beyond the standard advice on contraception and explore themes such as how to establish healthy boundaries and spot the warning signs of sexual exploitation.

We focus on these challenging topics because we believe that healthy relationships in the teenage and early adult years are crucial: research tells us that social isolation or unhealthy relationships can result in poor mental wellbeing or, in some cases, serious mental illness.

Improving people's mental health

At our Ipswich Centre, we run a volunteer-led project called Headspace. Our skilled staff work with a cohort of people with a mental health condition to build their confidence and resilience. These people then go on to offer peer support to another group of people.

In 2015, 72% of Headspace participants told us they were able to manage their mental health better as a result of participating in the programme. Their confidence increased so much that in January this year they organised and performed a pantomime for their friends, families and the local community.

Helping volunteers as well as their beneficiaries

Volunteering is enormously valuable not only for the beneficiaries of volunteer projects, but also for the volunteers who generously donate their time and energy to these worthwhile projects. The NHS recommends volunteering as a healthy way to boost self-confidence, develop new skills, build new relationships and play an active role in your local community.

All of these things can contribute to improved physical and mental health. The 2016 World Happiness Report revealed that social support and generosity are key determinants of national wellbeing. 

I hope that I’ve inspired you to consider volunteering this Mental Health Awareness Week, as a fun and meaningful way to boost your own wellbeing and contribute to your local community. But if you still need convincing, take five minutes to read some case studies from our wonderful volunteers: I am sure you’ll feel inspired by their stories. 

It is true that the mainstream media is too often full of negative stories and social division. This Mental Health Awareness Week I challenge you to put down your newspaper and  take a break from passively reading about social problems. Sign up for a volunteer opportunity and become part of the solution - I’m confident that you won’t regret it!