If the COVID-19 pandemic has left you feeling disconnected, disheartened or just plain down in the dumps, a good way to reconnect and feel better is to volunteer in your community.
Before the pandemic, about three in 10 Americans volunteered each year, but 2020 saw a major drop in volunteerism as people stayed home to stay safe and weren’t sure how to find virtual opportunities.
Finding a safe way to volunteer now can not only help your community but can also benefit your whole health, says Dr. Austin Hall, medical director of the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health.
“We approach patient care holistically,” Hall says. “That means making sure that we are looking at patients’ physical, social and cognitive well-being. Volunteering is a great tool that can engage all of those aspects of health.”
Whether you help build a home, serve food, clean up litter or perform another act of service, here are four ways Hall says volunteering can benefit your health.
Mental health benefits of volunteer work
Volunteering has been shown to have a positive effect on both mental health and cognitive abilities. By engaging in a common mission or cause with others, you feel more connected and useful, which spurs happier thoughts and a more positive outlook.
Spending time volunteering can also keep your mind sharp by engaging your brain.
“The most solid evidence for the cognitive benefits of volunteering has been shown in older adults, because they have been studied most,” Hall says. “In this age group, volunteering can delay cognitive decline. But at any age, engaging your mind in this way may have cognitive benefits.”
Physical health benefits of volunteer work
Physical activity is good for your body, and volunteering can help get you moving.
“The primary volunteer opportunity we offer individuals through our center is working on our farm, where we grow fresh produce for people in our area with mental illness who might have barriers to accessing healthy foods or incorporating whole foods into their diet,” Hall says. “This kind of volunteering gets people active outdoors, which has even more added benefits, like fresh air and a dose of vitamin D from the sun.”
Physical activity has also been shown to have a positive effect on mental health, so by choosing an active volunteer opportunity, you can benefit even more. Keep in mind that in most volunteer situations, the physical activity required can be modified to fit a person’s abilities.
Social-emotional health benefits of volunteer work
A healthy part of the human experience is being around others. Hall says that generally, people who are more isolated from others are more prone to mental health conditions. In addition, sometimes mental health conditions can make people feel more isolated or cause them to isolate themselves. Socialization can break that cycle, bringing the experience of feeling connected and helping people build new relationships.
Finding purpose in volunteer work
“Meaningful and purposeful roles are important to our health,” Hall says. “Volunteer opportunities have the potential to create an additional role for individuals that may contribute to their feeling of meaning and purpose.”
Having roles that feel meaningful can help with your sense of worth and value. Especially at this point in the pandemic, developing a new social identity through volunteering may be helpful for people who are feeling a little lost.
Volunteering safely during a pandemic
As with any activity, people have different comfort levels with the risk of exposure to COVID-19 while volunteering. Whatever your risk tolerance, it is possible to serve your community safely. Many organizations offer virtual opportunities and outdoor opportunities. If you volunteer inside with other people, make sure to wear a mask. If you’re vaccinated against COVID-19, you may feel comfortable tackling the same kind of volunteer activities you would have done before the pandemic.
Dr. Austin Hall is an associate professor of psychiatry and director of clinical informatics in psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine and the medical director of the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health.