Online Courses and CE: We offer a series of online educational programs for professionals and the public. Visit us here for previews and discounts on our online programs.

Follow PsychologySalon on Facebook: Become a fan of the PsychologySalon page; updates will appear in your news feed.

Looking for a therapist? We have eleven registered psychologists in our clinic, and we are accepting new clients. For information, visit

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Volunteering as Therapy for Depression

Getting in the door can be a challenge.

Some clients who see a therapist are unemployed, or never employed, or are presently on long term disability insurance. Many such clients are depressed.

Virtually every psychological state brings with it a set of action tendencies, and those in depression are particularly problematic. Little seems appealing or enjoyable, so there is a tendency to withdraw, isolate, and do very little. Similar temptations appear with the flu, but in the case of flu they are helpful in aiding recovery. By contrast, inactivity and isolation only tend to make depression worse. Further, there can be a profound feeling of meaninglessness in life, and a belief that one is useless or has nothing to contribute.

So therapists routinely try to get people more involved and active, and often one of the person’s goals is to seek employment or return to work. But steering directly toward that daunting goal is often counterproductive: it’s too frightening, the employer may not be accommodating, there is a worry about attempting work and discovering it is too difficult, and so on.

Volunteer work is often a better option – for those seeking or hoping to return to work, or for people who are continuing to work but feeling unfulfilled or isolated in their off hours. There are many advantages:

  • Failure is not a problem. If you don’t enjoy it or succeed at it, it need not appear on your resume.
  • Financial considerations are irrelevant. You don’t have to base your choice on how much the position pays.
  • Volunteer work provides structure. Volunteers oblige themselves to get out of bed, get organized, and show up at specific times for specific tasks. This type of structure is usually very helpful in the recovery from depression.
  • You can pursue your passions. Maybe environmentalism, or Buddhism, or community theatre are difficult career choices due to few paid positions being available, but you can become involved based on your interests. 
  • Positions are available. Almost no matter what field you are interested in, it is possible to find some type of volunteer work that is related.
  • You can use existing skills. You’re interested in multiple sclerosis but your training is in databases? No problem – the local association can almost certainly use someone with these skills. And if not, there are hundreds of other tasks you can do.
  • You can explore possible careers. Think that social work might be an interesting pursuit? Volunteering can put you close enough to people in that field that you will get an inside look at what it’s really like.
  • It can go on your resume. Having volunteer work on a resume can be a big help, particularly if the work is related to the field in which you hope to obtain paid employment.
  • You get a social life. Many discover that a huge proportion of their social contact comes from the people they meet at their volunteer work. Because agencies are not paying their volunteers, they often take greater pains to make sure there are social events for them.
  • It can lead to employment. Depending on the type of work, some organizations hire their own volunteers for jobs. Volunteer research assistants at universities, for example, are the obvious first choice when paid research assistantships become available.

Doubtless there are more advantages than these, and doubtless there are a few disadvantages as well. (Readers:  Perhaps you’d like to add some observations?) And no one is claiming that volunteer work is the thing for everyone, or that it’s a moral responsibility for people to do volunteer work, or that it’s a stand-alone treatment for depression.

But for many people who have attended our clinic, it has been an enormous help in their recovery, and we try to keep up on the diverse array of opportunities out there so that we can raise possibilities when appropriate.

The Well-Defended Castle

There is one problem that we’ve noticed, though. Most volunteer organizations run on a wing and a prayer. They’re not very organized. People need to know this and anticipate it.

People call up organizations to investigate volunteer opportunities. They leave a message, and no one gets back to them. Or their email gets lost. Or the next meeting  for prospective volunteers is 4 months away.

The hopeful volunteer can feel like they are imposing on the organization, or bothering people with their repeated calls trying to get information. It’s like they are assaulting a well-defended castle, which is doing everything possible to repel their advances.

For a person with depression, it is easy to overinterpret this experience. “You see? I was right: I can’t even give my time away.” “Nobody wants me.” “Why would I help an organization that treats me this way?” “It’s true, I really am useless after all.”

It’s useful to know in advance that gaining entry to a volunteer organization is often like this. It doesn’t mean much about the prospective volunteer or whether volunteers are valued. It’s more about the underfunding or lack of organization in the volunteer service, or the workload of the volunteer coordinator. People need to accept it, avoid self-attributing the problem, and keep asking.

Yes, of course the organization should roll out the red carpet for people generous enough to offer their time for free. But they can’t and they don’t. They value people once they get in the door and start contributing. Getting through the door can be a challenge.

Online Course

Want more behavioral strategies for depression? Our clinic has developed a cognitive behavioral guide to self-care for depression. Though not a substitute for professional face-to-face care, UnDoing Depression may be a useful adjunct to your efforts.  The preview is below. For 50% off the regular fee of $140 USD, use coupon code “changeways70” when you visit our host site, here.

We also have courses for professionals and for the public entitled What Is Depression, What Causes Depression, Diagnosing Depression, Cognitive Behavioral Group Treatment of Depression, How to Buy Happiness, and Breathing Made Easy. For the full list with previews and substantial discounts, visit us at the Courses page of the Changeways Clinic website.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.