We are striving for an inclusive volunteering environment where everyone feels, firstly, welcome to join an organisation, and then properly supported in their role. In reality, there are still many barriers and we can sometimes be nervous of terms like ‘additional needs’ or ‘mental health difficulties’. Hearing about one volunteer’s experience might remove some of the fear, and help us to be more confident and open to supporting volunteers with mental health difficulties.
Walking the miles alongside everyone else but there is extra weight to carry
Diagnosed with a mental health condition 20 years ago, I view my condition like wearing shoes: except mine have a layer of concrete in the soles. It is not visible to others, and I can walk the miles alongside everyone else but there is extra weight to carry. Everything takes careful planning and I have to consciously put my feet up and rest at the end of the day.
I’ve been volunteering for 25 years and it complements my life in so many ways. I’ve gained a huge amount of experience and it’s a brilliant addition to my CV. I’ve met some fantastic people and made some friends for life. I enjoy it and, overall, it’s hugely beneficial to my health. Yet in 2015, I found myself completely disillusioned with volunteering following a series of false starts.
I experienced a period of relapse: not caused by any of these unfortunate experiences – the condition means I feel everything far more acutely than is normal or healthy – but it did exacerbate matters and I saw barriers everywhere. I felt I had nothing to offer the voluntary world and became demoralised. I was starting to wear cynicism on my sleeve so I stopped volunteering for a while.
In this culture, my condition was never an issue
Staying connected is key to recovery. When I felt stronger I reached out again to volunteer, but focused on finding an Organisation that could support me instead of thinking only about what I could do for them.
I found a placement with a team for whom equal opportunities and volunteer involving policies were more than just written statements. The staff were approachable and friendly and the atmosphere was always warm, positive and inclusive. Volunteers contributed hugely to the organisation and our work was always recognised and celebrated. Flexible working hours was a key factor in enabling me to fulfill my role. I received ongoing training and absorbed as much as I could about good volunteer management practice.
In this culture, my condition was never an issue. I disclosed it to my volunteer supervisor after starting, when an opportunity naturally presented itself and it felt right. I wasn’t always mentally well but continued to attend consistently and my work was never affected. On the one occasion I was unable to make it in, it felt liberating to be able to be honest and not to pretend I had a cold.
I have my volunteering mojo back!
The minimum time commitment had been 3 months but I was so happy there that I stayed for a year, and it was a difficult decision to leave. I moved on to coordinate an entirely volunteer-led Project that provides me with an amazing opportunity to use everything I have learned. I hardly recognise myself as the person who almost gave up on voluntary work and I’m extremely happy now that I didn’t. I have my volunteering mojo back!
There is such a wide variety of volunteer roles out there just waiting to be filled and I honestly believe that it’s as easy to give our time freely as it is to donate clothes to a charity shop. I’m so glad I persevered: it seems I just needed to try out a few different organisations to find the right fit.
To discuss your needs and see how we can support you best, please contact your Organisation Support Officer Frances Hayden
firstname.lastname@example.org or (01) 473 7482