Volunteering and other types of community participation are linked to improved mental health. But who benefits most and are some types of volunteering more beneficial than others? Dr Claire Wicks takes a look at the evidence.
The positive association between mental health and community participation (such as volunteering) are well-established in research. The reported benefits include increased life satisfaction, happiness, quality of life and decreases in symptoms of depression. Volunteering offers social benefits including increased social interaction and social connectedness and reduced loneliness. All of these are associated with increased wellbeing and positive mental health outcomes.
The benefits of volunteering have been found to be cumulative over time, meaning those who volunteer more frequently and for longer experience greater mental health benefits.
This effect is evident even when considering factors associated with poorer mental health, such as race and gender. However, there is the potential for the beneficial effects of volunteering to reduce where role exhaustion occurs or roles are emotionally demanding.
The mental health benefits of volunteering may also vary at different times of life, with greater effects experienced from the age of 40 and upwards into older age. It has been suggested that these differences may come about because of generational social attitudes towards volunteering.
Another reason why there may be age differences is that younger people find opportunities for personal growth and fulfilment through education or career development, whereas older people have less of these opportunities and volunteering can provide this opportunity for personal growth instead among older people.
Research tends to classify volunteering into types: self-oriented and other-orientated. These types relate to whether the activity is motivated by a reciprocal benefit such as personal development or building social networks and helping others in need, as in altruistic responsibilities or humanitarian concerns. Both types of volunteering were found to be beneficial for mental health, life satisfaction and social wellbeing, although the effect was greater for other-orientated volunteering. Only other-orientated volunteering reduced depressive symptoms.
Studies have found motivation for volunteering is usually a complex interplay between altruistic and personal reasons and new motivations for volunteering continue to emerge in research. In addition, reasons for volunteering influence an individual’s experience of volunteering and if personal needs are not met there may be the potential for negative impact on mental health and wellbeing. For example, continuing to volunteer through a sense of obligation can become a drain on emotional resources; discontinuing may lead to a sense of failure or inadequacy. This does not appear to be widely explored in the literature.
There are barriers to engaging in volunteering and social and health inequalities can result. In other words, those who may benefit most from volunteering having reduced opportunity to engage in volunteering. Older adults and those with disabilities may be limited by the type of role they are perceived to be able to perform. The financial and time costs associated with volunteering can also prevent those with fewer financial resources from volunteering.
“… whilst volunteering is a mechanism for individuals to boost their personal, social, financial, and cultural resources in order to overcome exclusion, volunteering also consumes one’s resources. This means that those with less personal and social resources are less able to volunteer and gain the associated benefits.” Southby, South and Bagnall (2019).
During the coronavirus pandemic when population level mental health was in decline, those who volunteered reported fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. This suggests volunteering can offer protective effects even during life events that may adversely affect mental health. However, due to the restrictions in place, many regular volunteers were unable to continue volunteering (e.g. due to shielding or suspension of regular activities) leaving these people at increased mental health risk.
Volunteering can be a beneficial form of community participation even for populations more susceptible to poor mental health. Furthermore, volunteering can offer protective effects during times when mental health may otherwise be adversely affected.
However, as with many mental health enhancing activities, opportunities for volunteering are not equally accessible and those who have most to gain are less likely to engage in volunteering. Non-profit and community organisations who often rely on volunteers to operate, need to do more to ensure all members of the community have equal access to volunteering opportunities.
Research Officer, University of Essex
Claire completed her PhD in Health Studies at the University of Essex and currently holds research posts in the School of Health and Social Care and Department of Psychology. Claire has worked alongside University colleagues to evaluate various nature-based initiatives at local and national level.