Do Good, Feel Good?

Volunteering may positively affect mental health but evidence is unclear

(RxWiki News) About a quarter of the US population volunteers in some form or another, whether on their own, through a church or through another organization. What do they get out of it?

A recent study found that volunteering may offer its participants mental health benefits, including a positive effect on depression.

The study analyzed other research on the topic and attempted to determine whether volunteering might improve a person's physical or mental health.

While some of the evidence shows it might help mental health, the benefits appear to rely on the fact that a person actually chooses to volunteer out of their own free will.

"Make time in your life to give to others."

This study, led by Caroline E. Jenkinson, of the University of Exeter Medical School in the United Kingdom, aimed to find out how volunteering affects one's physical and mental health.

The authors searched 12 medical and social research databases for all studies that compared the physical or mental health of a group of volunteers to a group of non-volunteers.

The researchers found 40 studies, including seven randomized controlled trials, four other trials and 17 studies comparing existing groups.

The conclusions drawn from the 17 studies combined was that volunteering can have a positive effect on individuals' depression, life satisfaction and general well-being.

Those studies did not, however, find a positive effect on physical health from volunteering.

Five of them together did find that people who volunteered had a slightly reduced risk of death (about 22 percent lower odds of dying sooner).

The other trials did not find the same mental health effects from volunteering.

The researchers did not have enough evidence to determine whether any possible positive effects from volunteering were related to the volunteering type or how often people volunteered.

The researchers concluded that some evidence based on observations does exist to suggest that volunteering is beneficial for one's mental health.

The reason this may be the case, however, were not clear.

The authors noted that part of what might make volunteering beneficial for someone is the free will to do it in the first place, which means telling people to do it may not have the same effect.

"Volunteering interventions are unlikely to yield benefits if such activities hold no intrinsic meaning or value to the potential recipients," they wrote.

They also noted the difficulty of even defining what "volunteering" is since the definition varied considerably across the studies they found.

They suggested that studying volunteering in randomized trials, in which one group would be required to volunteer as part of the study, may not be possible since the "volunteering" would then, literally, no longer be "volunteering."

The main conclusion appears to be that people who choose to volunteer tend to reap mental health benefits from it.

This study was published August 23 in the journal BMC Public Health. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.

The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care for the South West Peninsula.

Review Date: 
August 31, 2013