This post originally appeared on the Doing Good Leeds site, you can find it here.

Mental health and volunteering

Anyone can be affected and for some individuals mental health issues can return for any number of reasons.
People experiencing mental health issues may choose to volunteer for a variety of reasons. Volunteering allows them to feel a sense of purpose or achievement, to gain new skills and experience, to socialise, make friends and feel part of a community.  For some it is an important and positive step towards their own recovery as volunteering provides them with a structure and routine, helps boost self-esteem and confidence and a belief in their own ability.  With appropriate support, their conditions can be managed so they don’t interfere with their volunteer role.

Key points to consider

Here are the key points to consider if you are to recruit volunteers who have experienced mental health issues:

  • Check that an individual really wants to volunteer and has realistic expectations of what he or she can offer. Gain an understanding of their particular needs, especially any implications his or her condition may have on the role.
  • Check if the volunteer is able to travel independently and provide expenses to support travel costs.
  • Use the volunteer’s specialised knowledge and lived experience of mental health. Provide them with the necessary skills and training to develop peer support groups to support other people and/or volunteers.
  • Offer appropriate training to equip them with the knowledge and skills of both the organisation and their role. Ongoing training will help to develop and value volunteers and their commitment, and ensure they are able to deliver their roles.
  • Develop a buddying system during the induction programme training to support all volunteers with mental health needs, but roll out to all volunteers to avoid singling anyone out.
  • Have clear defined roles and expectations.  All volunteers should have a clear explanation of their roles and responsibilities, as well as what they are and not allowed to do to meet their responsibilities. Start with a small commitment then gradually build on this.
  • Match roles to volunteers.  Every volunteer will have different strengths and weaknesses and will find different situations stressful or rewarding so match roles to their skills and preferences. Having a trial period can help reduce the anxieties of the role.
  • Ensure resources are in place for volunteers to perform their role. This refers not only to the physical and financial, but also to intangible resources such as skills, performance feedback and social support.
  • Being able to make your own decision can increase feelings of self-confidence and personal achievement.  Any targets set for the volunteer should be realistic and achievable.
  • Provide regular reviews and ongoing support to volunteers using appropriate methods, e.g. regular one to one/group supervision, and support group meetings with other volunteers.  Ensure volunteers know who to contact if they need support and how to get in touch with them.
  • Promote a positive and healthy working environment.  A creative volunteering environment can help to reduce stress on the individual.  Allow flexible working hours where possible and be open to new ideas and different ways of working. Identify ways in which the volunteer can assist the organisation while still maintaining an acceptable psychological environment.
  • Encourage strong social support between volunteers by providing opportunities for social occasions which can be combined with volunteer recognition events. Set up peer support groups where volunteers can get together, support each other and arrange to take part in activities away from their volunteer roles.
  • Reassure volunteers if they become unwell and are unable to volunteer for a time – whether that’s weeks or months –  that they are welcome to return to volunteering when they feel able.
  • Good communication empowers and informs volunteers, keeping them update with both the organisation and their progress. It also helps to identify any problems before they become too serious. Encourage volunteers to feedback on the organisation and their roles using a range of platforms including formal meetings, supervision, support group meetings, questionnaires, reviews and workshops. Listen to individual concerns using co-production/volunteer involvement methods.
  • Value all volunteers’ contributions and offer frequent informal and formal feedback.  Saying ‘thank you’ can go a long way to making volunteers feel valued and significant and supports their wellbeing – increasing their confidence and self esteem which will enhance their performance. End of year celebrations, newsletters, compliment letters, thank you cards and certificates of appreciation also show that an organisation appreciates volunteers’ commitment and support.
  • Provide references for volunteers for any future placements/training/volunteering or employment opportunities.
  • Follow good practice in the management of volunteers in all instances e.g. using volunteer policy, recruitment and selection, induction, training support and supervision.
  • As an organisation, know your limits. If you’re not able to offer suitable placements then don’t – instead offer details of alternative organisations where volunteer opportunities may be available

About Touchstone

Touchstone, who specialise in working with people from different cultural backgrounds across West Yorkshire, is one of the Sunday Times top 100 Best Not-for-Profit Organisations to Work For and a Stonewall Top 100 employer.  Touchstone Volunteers Project has also achieved Investing in Volunteers accreditation. You can follow them on Twitter @Touchstone_Spt