“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” — Winston Churchill
Last year, 30.3% of adults in the U.S. volunteered, according to a study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Services. That’s 77.34 million people. Collectively, Americans volunteered nearly 6.9 billion hours, and many more performed “informal” volunteering by supporting friends and family or doing favors for neighbors.
Volunteers are a tremendous asset for many organizations across the country, especially those that are not for profit. In fact, many charitable nonprofits have few paid employees and rely heavily on volunteers for daily operations. However, volunteering isn’t just beneficial for the people and organizations that receive help—it also leads to positive outcomes for those who give their time.
For starters, research has shown that older adults who volunteer or support others have lower mortality rates and report greater life satisfaction than those who do not volunteer. Among young people, volunteering has been linked to positive social development in terms of increased political awareness, greater belief that they can make a difference in their community, and greater confidence that they will succeed in higher education.
Most importantly, volunteerism is a protective factor that can help people avoid or mitigate mental health issues. We spoke with Jennifer Crooks, Cummins’ Director of Employment Services, and Tammi Jessup, Executive Director of Mental Health America of Hendricks County, to learn more about how volunteering can be beneficial for mental wellness.
Explaining Volunteerism through Role Theory
In the fields of preventative medicine and behavioral health, a protective factor is anything that decreases the chances of a negative health outcome. These may be resources, supports or coping skills that help people deal with stress more effectively, or they may be attributes that counteract risk factors for physical and mental health.
An abundance of psychological research has shown that volunteering is one such protective factor. For example, some studies have found that formal volunteering gives older adults a greater sense of purpose by mitigating “role-identity absences” in later life. According to Jennifer Crooks, this is also true for people who do not work. “Employment and vocation is a huge piece of the eight dimensions of wellness, and when we think about people who don’t have that piece in their life, volunteering can help them feel like they’re giving back to the community and that they’re part of the community,” she says.
The connection between volunteering and life satisfaction is explained by “role theory,” a concept from social psychology which states that a person’s social connections give meaning and purpose to their life. According to this theory, if a person has more social roles, they will feel a greater sense of purpose and be protected from isolation during difficult periods in life. By fostering meaningful, life-enriching social connections, volunteering can be beneficial for almost anyone’s mental well-being, as Jennifer explains:
“Volunteering gives people purpose. If they can help another person or an animal, then they see the joy in that. If they’re recovering from a mental health issue, you’ll notice a difference in their recovery when they start getting out and being more engaged. It gives them something to look forward to, something that’s a positive in their life when negatives may be all they see sometimes.”
Volunteerism and Mental Health America of Hendricks County
The positive effect that volunteering has on mental health is indisputable, and as we mentioned earlier, volunteer labor is indispensable to many well-meaning but under-funded organizations. However, the individuals and organizations that could most benefit from each other don’t always connect. This is something that Tammi Jessup of Mental Health America of Hendricks County witnesses on a regular basis:
“We have a support group for anyone with any kind of mental health condition, and I’ve talked about this with various people in the group for years. T
here are a wealth of opportunities for people to volunteer, whether they want to be around people or not be around people, or whether they want to work with animals, or whether they want office work. Whatever they want, there are so, so many places that would love to have volunteers.”
As a nonprofit itself, Mental Health America of Hendricks County (or MHAHC) depends on volunteer help to complete its mission of promoting mental wellness in the community. “We perform puppet shows for elementary school students, and we almost always need puppeteers because we need people who have availability during the school day. We have office work that can be done, we have landscaping work, and we have craft work for our wreaths that we sell at Christmastime,” Jessup says.
To make the experience as rewarding as possible, MHAHC does its best to give volunteers tasks that they enjoy and are well suited for. “We try to match the volunteering to a person’s interests and abilities and make it fun for them,” Jessup says.