Supporting Volunteers Living With Mental Illness

22 April 2021 | News

As humans living in this world, particularly during/post-pandemic (depending where in the world you are reading from), we all have moments of struggle. If we're fortunate, they're few and far between. For someone who struggles with mental illness, however, those moments can be frequent, long-lasting, and incredibly difficult to deal with.

So how do we support these individuals when they're part of our volunteer programmes so that they still feel welcomed and valued, and so that our programmes continue to run to full effect without extra pressure on anyone? Let's talk about creating a community of care for the volunteers we engage...

What if, instead of expecting the physical and mental health of each person in our programmes to be an individual journey and responsibility, we created a community of care around our volunteers and built a structure of support to make sure that no one was falling through the cracks. By engaging with each other, creating social bonds, and checking in with each other, we can make a difference. It is well known that oftentimes the difference between feeling alone in your struggle with mental health and feeling like you're supported by a network of people can be massive. As leaders / coordinators / managers of volunteers, we are in a prime position to form these communities of care.

But how do we do it?

  • Start each volunteer shift by checking in with the larger group. Try to get a read on the energy level of each person in that group, ask how they're feeling (mentally and physically). If you're open and honest about how you are feeling, you may be surprised by how open the volunteers and staff are.
  • If, after that group check-in, you've realised that there is a volunteer that just seems a bit off, why not do an individual check-in with them? Invite them to have a cup of coffee with you in the office and show them that someone cares enough to reach out. Even if they don't want to talk to you at that time, it may mean the world to know you tried.
  • Instead of putting all the onus on the individual volunteers to be caring for themselves and their mental health, try changing the conversation. Ask how we can all care for each other. By switching things up in this way, and by focusing on caring for each other mutually, we can create much stronger support networks for everyone.
  • Don't be afraid to start the conversation. Perhaps there's a number of volunteers (or staff!) in your organisation who have been struggling or who have noticed someone else who might need help but they don't know how to reach out and ask, or they're worried about making things worse. If those who are dealing with mental illness are isolating themselves from the rest of the team, they may also be isolating from other people in their lives. You reaching out may be the just the thing they need!

Above all, remember that we are all human and we won't get it right every time. If you reach out and discover that something is going on that you don't feel equipped to deal with, there are other options. Don't be afraid to tell your volunteers that you're happy to help work with them to find the help or support they need. It isn't your job to fix the problem, it's your job to support your volunteers.

"Sometimes we need someone to simply be there. Not to fix anything, or to do anything in particular, but just to let us feel that we are cared for and supported"