The Psychological Impacts of Volunteering When Depressed
Dr. Susan Noonan is not only an advocate for individuals with mental illness, but also a counselor, a teacher, and a friend. She is actively teaching the psychological impacts of volunteering and the road to recovery from depression.
Recently, I posted a blog on my Psychology Today column View From the Mist about the benefits of volunteering when depressed. I described many of the advantages of getting out and helping others. I also discussed how difficult it is when depressed, and the many things we face each day that make it a unique challenge. Today let’s continue that discussion and look at the psychological impact of volunteering.
When you volunteer your time to help others, there are several things you must do first. For instance, search out the possible volunteer opportunities, see what the description is like, and how demanding it feels. Then, you have to telephone the organization, fill out an application form which might have short essay questions, and go for an interview with a supervisor-type person to determine if you are a good fit for their organization. When not depressed, you just take it all in stride.
The depressed mind colors our perception, and we may start to have negative thoughts about the whole thing. Deciding on where to volunteer and the entire application process is a big deal when depressed. You might wonder: What if it’s too much? What if I can’t do the tasks asked of me? They probably wonder why I am doing this, why I have so much free time at my age, in the middle of my career when I should be out working in a real job! They probably think I’m a loser! I don’t want anybody, especially my friends, to know that I am not working and have to do volunteering instead. Embarrassing! What if I get really depressed again and can’t go in? I don’t want anybody to see me like this. And on and on. Well, STOP right there!
Think about what you are saying to yourself, and try to see that it is a negative bias. Where is the evidence for and evidence against these statements? In reality, people appreciate volunteers for giving. They are not doing it because they have nothing else to do. They are not judged negatively by others. Rather, they garner respect for what they choose to do. You will be too. Try to reframe the conversation you have with yourself. Come up with a more positive and accurate reason for why you are volunteering.
When you volunteer, you must look socially presentable. You need to get cleaned up, showered, shaved, hair done, dressed in clean, pressed, business casual clothes. It shows respect for the people you help, the organization you represent, and yourself. That’s a huge effort when depressed! It turns out to be very good for your depression, though. Taking care forces you to periodically present yourself in your best light possible and practice your social skills with people you don’t yet know in a safe and friendly environment. It also offsets the tendency toward isolation that is common in depression. You might feel anxious at first, especially if depression has caused you to be more isolated, but over time that will improve.
Volunteering your time to help others often brings you benefits in return. It gives you a sense of purpose and accomplishment that perhaps you may have forgotten. You become accountable to others for showing up, on time and ready to function at some moderate level. They depend on you. You then feel better about yourself and your self-confidence improves. You come to feel needed and appreciated for what you do for others. That is important to have, and I found that it’s a different feeling from when you have a paid job. You might also learn new skills that you can use in other areas of your life. Volunteering also gives you the opportunity to think of something and someone else other than your own overwhelmingly negative thoughts.
Seeing the results of your volunteer work can be a source of pleasure, something that is often missing in depression. The smile on a recipient’s face or the appreciation shown by others is hard to get elsewhere. It’s very hard to put a price on and gives you personal pride.
If you have professional skills you bring to your volunteer activity (plumber, bookkeeper, teacher, computer, lawyer), there are additional benefits gained from that experience as well. First, you are sharing your unique talents with those who need them. You’re needed and that feels good. Second, it’s always good for your job and career development to be able to say that you volunteer your skills in a particular way. It looks very good on a resume and could be a foot into new job prospects.
When I volunteered at the cancer resource room of a teaching hospital, it took me a while to get going. I had doubts inside as to whether or not I could do the job, who I would interact with, what it would be like to be in a volunteer role instead of a doctor, and whether or not I would run into one of my physician colleagues. What would they think of me? Would they wonder why I took a leave of absence and why I was volunteering?
I had longs hours to consider my responses to these questions and eventually became comfortable with the reasons I wanted to volunteer. My life was as it was, recovering from major depression. I looked at volunteering as something I needed to do to get me going towards my goal of return to work. Turns out it all worked out well – the people were great, my experience was just what I needed, and my doubts disappeared.
Susan J. Noonan MD, MPH is a physician, author of two books on depression, a certified peer specialist, and a long-term patient. Her books, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, are: Managing Your Depression: What you can do to feel better (2013), and When Someone You Know Has Depression: Words to Say and Things to Do (2016).