Volunteering to Recover

Pam Hutton has had to navigate some low points in her life and has battled with serious depression for much of her adulthood. The mother of three tried to commit suicide on several occasions, lost her job, got divorced, and has been treated with medications and electro-convulsive therapy. But Ms Hutton, 55, has now turned her life around: she is much better and has a job she loves. Much of the credit for this success she attributes to the confidence and sense of purpose she gained by volunteering to help other people.

“I thought I was worthless, but volunteering gave me back some self-esteem and helped me to stop feeling so isolated,” said Ms Hutton, who believes volunteering and befriending schemes were a catalyst for improving her life.

She is a great exemplar of what seems to be a growing link between volunteering and the recovery of people who have experienced mental health problems.

The Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, is carrying out research in this area and published preliminary findings today that suggest a “strong link” between volunteering and recovery.

Researchers spoke to 60 people with a variety of conditions, including depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, who are taking part in the Capital Volunteering initiative, which helps people with mental health problems to volunteer in London.

About 85% of those questioned reported positive outcomes from getting involved. The project aims to help people with mental health problems to reduce their dependence on hospital-based treatment and crisis services and foster greater social-inclusion.

Ms Hutton, of Havering, east London, volunteers to help other people with mental health problems, something which grew out of her involvement with the mental health charity Mind, which she first contacted for help in 1999.

“At first I was not ready to try and help other people, but by 2001 I found that I was getting better and could talk to other people with problems. There was a connection there, an empathy, because I could say that I understood and had been through some of the things that people were talking about.

“When I met one woman for the first time who I befriended she said she had not been out of her house for several months. Over a period of time we developed a trusting relationship and she began to come shopping with me and once again buy her own food and even enjoy a meal out. Helping her made me feel better about myself and gave me an added incentive to overcome my own problems.”

She said she realised that there was a danger that hearing about other people’s depression could “pull her down”.

“I knew this was a risk and you have good days and bad days, but that has never really happened to me. Some people, though, feel differently and not all of those involved with Capital Volunteering are involved with mental health charities. There are all kinds of other areas where you can volunteer.”

Ms Hutton used to work in personnel for a local authority, a job she found unfulfilling compared with what she does now. Now she chairs a committee at Mind in Havering and is part of the steering group of Capital Volunteering. She works four days at a college in Havering helping to train social workers.

“When I first started to get involved at the office at Mind, it led me to do a computer training course and this was part of a process in which I started to build up my self confidence and lots of good things followed from there.”

Capital Volunteering is backed by CSV (Community Service Volunteers), through which nearly 200,000 people a year give 4.9m hours of their time as volunteers.