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Should I volunteer?

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There's good evidence that volunteering brings benefits to both the person volunteering and the people and organisations they support.

Volunteering involves spending unpaid time doing something to help other people or groups, other than (or as well as) close relatives. Evidence suggests that volunteering brings health benefits to both the volunteers and the people they help.

In an attempt to measure the benefits on volunteers, Volunteering England commissioned the University of Wales to undertake a review of research on the subject. Dr Rachel Casiday, lecturer at the Department of Voluntary Sector Studies at the University of Wales, Lampeter, led the review. She describes its findings below.

“Peer support doesn’t just work one way,” says Dr Casiday. “Even if you’re in a mentoring role, simply talking to someone else who's struggling with the same issue can support you as well. It’s not just an act of charity. In a lot of cases, the volunteer is helped as much as the patient.”

Health benefits

“Volunteering can yield as many benefits, if not more, for the volunteers themselves,” says Dr Casiday. Benefits can include:

Quality of life

A May 2012 study by the Royal Voluntary Service (formerly the WRVS) found that volunteering in later life decreased depression and social isolation. It was also found to boost quality of life and life satisfaction.

Ability to cope with ill health

Volunteering can help people come to terms with their own illness and help take their mind off their own problems. One study found that it helped them perform better in their own daily lives.

A healthier lifestyle

“The research looked at smokers volunteering in stop-smoking services, who then gave up themselves,” says Dr Casiday. “It also studied binge drinking on university campuses, and found that when students were volunteering, they drank much less.”

Improved family relationships

A study comparing older volunteers with older non-volunteers showed that the volunteers had better relationships with their family. “This may be because their care-giving role carries over into personal relationships and makes older volunteers more independent and less reliant on their family,” says Dr Casiday.

Meeting new people

Volunteering is a good way to meet people. This can be vital for older volunteers and people who might be isolated or not particularly integrated into society.

Improved self-esteem and sense of purpose

“This can be really important in getting someone back to work,” says Dr Casiday. “Volunteering can bring back your self-esteem and motivate you. Improved self-esteem can have an effect on other areas of your health and life.”

Patient health

The report by Dr Casiday concluded that it's difficult to accurately measure the effect of volunteering on people who use the NHS, because the range of volunteering roles is so varied. The report did reveal the following results for patients:

Increased self-esteem and confidence

When someone has a long-term condition, their self-esteem is often affected, making it difficult for them to talk to doctors. “Having a volunteer to act as a mediator can really make the patient feel supported,” says Dr Casiday. Volunteers can improve the relationship between staff and patient.

Better social interaction, integration and support

A volunteer is more likely to be seen as someone who's on the same level as the patient (a peer) and is therefore easier to relate to than a doctor. The volunteer is also likely to have more time to listen and chat to the patient. One study showed that volunteers could even reduce depression in patients.

Reduced burden on carers

Having somebody to support carers can be of huge value to them. It reduces the strain on the carer and helps them to carry on effectively with their caring duties.

Decreased anxiety

One study showed that patients who were about to go through a medical procedure were less anxious when they could talk to a volunteer who had been through the same procedure themselves.

Longer survival times for hospice patients

“Hospice patients who have a volunteer making social visits live a month longer on average than those who don't,” says Dr Casiday. “This is amazing considering how unwell people are in a hospice setting.”

An increase in breastfeeding and childhood immunisation

Studies of young or disadvantaged mothers show that volunteers, either through telephone hotlines or home visits, provide peer support and help to educate them about breastfeeding and vaccinations. Volunteers could also have an influence on how often their children are taken for standard health checks.

Improved clinic attendance and taking of medicines

Having someone there who can help and be a mediator with the doctors can improve the chances of a patient following their treatments and attending their appointments.

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