Volunteering and improved mental health

Friendship, community and a boost to self-esteem

I've realised that one of the keys to addressing these statistics ... is to actively encourage opportunities for service within our community.

Photo: Screenshot
Photo: Screenshot

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of attending the 10th birthday of not-for-profit Flying Fox. The true celebration was one of Jewish youth, inspired by other Jewish youth to do good. As I watched the hall teeming with happy university students, I thought how contrasting this scene was to the gloomy statistics I had recently read on youth mental health.

Jonathan Haidt suggests that since 2012, there has been a huge increase in major depressive episodes among teenagers. Haidt, quoted in The Australian, highlighted a study completed last year among American university students, where 37 per cent reported feeling anxious “always” or “most of the time” and an additional 31 per cent felt anxious at least half the time.

I’ve realised that one of the keys to addressing these statistics, while also achieving broader positive social outcomes for communities, is to actively encourage opportunities for service within our community.

Volunteering for community goes a long way in addressing four important factors that have been found to positively affect mental health – time away from screens, fostering a sense of belonging, pivoting focus from self to other and cultivating a genuine sense of achievement.

In his book The Anxious Generation, Haidt has eloquently written what we have known for years: screens and mindless scrolling is rampant and rising among teens, and the effects are frightening. Spending on average three to four after-school hours on their phones, our children are roaming unsupervised on media that is anything but social and having asynchronous conversations that are absent of facial expression and nuance.

Volunteering with friends, being guided by adults and young adults only a few years their senior, is an opportunity for meaningful socialisation among people in a safe, structured environment. As volunteering often requires the use of head and two hands, the phone is away and replaced by speaking and eye contact, usually accompanied by laughter and smiles. So at a very basic level, volunteering is a way to meaningfully occupy our young people, screen free.

In asking “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” President John F Kennedy articulated the most sure-fire way to nurture community and belonging; we belong when we give. The shule my family belonged to in Perth (Dianella) did this brilliantly. Whether it was baking for or cleaning up from the kiddush, washing the tablecloths or doing shmira (guard duty), everyone contributed. It is the same with our young people; to foster a genuine sense of belonging, it is imperative that our youth look beyond what the community can provide for them and, instead, focus on how they contribute to the rich tapestry of their own community.

Abigail Shrier’s work on the effects of therapy on mental health of teenagers has caused quite a stir. And while there is robust debate about her observations and hypothesis, one element that truly resonated with me was the notion of the “emotional hypochondriac”.

The pain that hypochondriacs feel is real, but the issue is the pain being magnified by intense focus on that pain. According to Shrier, and what I see in schools, is that the same is true with difficult emotions.

Non-clinical feelings of anxiety and depression are intensified when they are focused on and talked about. Constantly focusing inwards, mulling over feelings and taking one’s emotional temperature is unhelpful and makes one less happy.

Conversely, thinking about the other and focusing on how one can help and enhance the life and experience of someone else can be a well-spring of endorphins. More time on others and less time on self is a recipe for contentment.

Finally, volunteering is an arena where everyone can get a ribbon, and more importantly, truly deserves a ribbon. We don’t do our children any favours when we conjure up illusions of achievement. Everyone, including the kids, can see through the pretence of the participation certificate and it undermines the meritocracy that incentivises hard work. We need to find ways for our young adults to shine in areas where effort means more than achievement, where commitment and kindness are the currency that leads to success.

Community service gifts this experience to our youth. Participation leads not only to metaphoric ribbons on the chest, but more importantly friendship, community and boost to self-esteem.

I’ve experienced a compelling further example of the vital role volunteering plays in positively influencing wellbeing. Visiting Israel in April on a study tour, I saw firsthand the benefit that supporting the community has on young people experiencing extreme trauma. Many in Israel are volunteering in their communities to help other people. What I observed and heard from those on the ground is this work is helping them find hope, helping them deal with the extreme stress and anxiety felt daily by coming together in service to others.

The power of service to others is providing a strong positive impact on both individuals and communities at a time when this is needed the most.

Shula Lazar is the principal of Leibler Yavneh College in Melbourne.

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