How to Improve Your Mental Health by Giving Back
The powerful physical and mental benefits of giving back.
Every year, I meet hundreds of youth and educators through WE Schools, our charity’s service-learning program. I ask them all the same question: What issues are you most concerned about? In the past, answers varied, but lately, there is a singular, common response: young people want support to address mental well-being.
Mental health is a huge and growing challenge across North America. Twenty-percent of American adults will experience a mental illness. More than six million American children under the age of 18 have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression.
Investing more in care and treatment will be part of the solution. But mental health is no different than physical health—preventative care can significantly reduce the need for treatment and interventions. Each of us can work proactively to look after the mental well-being of ourselves and others. And one surprisingly effective tonic is giving back.
Studies have found that philanthropy can be a cure for what ails you. Volunteering 200 hours a year lowers stress levels and blood pressure, and donating to charity markedly improves physical and emotional well-being.
Giving back can have particular benefits for high-risk groups more prone to mental health issues, like seniors and teens.
The teen years are an especially vulnerable time. Hormonal changes, social pressures, and the stresses of major life transitions, like moving from grade school to high school, can all impede healthy development. Half of all mental health issues begin by age 14, including depression, which affects one in eight adolescents.
Helping others can be the best self-care, like an armor that shields us from external stress and lessens its impact.
Serving food in a soup kitchen or chatting with folks in a retirement community forces a teen to focus on the needs of others, instead of fretting over their own worries. At that age, a breakup can seem like the end of the world. But, broadening a teen’s perspective promotes feelings of gratitude—which science has also shown is good for your health. Giving back is also great for self-image. The majority of youth involved in our service-learning programs reported increased feelings of self-esteem in an independent study.
Giving back isn’t just impactful for youth, charitable actions are a powerful tonic for seniors, too.
Getting involved in social causes through volunteering or activism gives elderly people a strong sense of purpose in life. With that purpose, seniors tend to live longer, are less prone to disability, and are less likely to experience neuro-degenerative issues like Alzheimer’s disease. These were the findings of a long-term study involving thousands of older adults, conducted by researchers at Chicago’s Rush University.
Both seniors and teens frequently suffer from an affliction that is a known contributor to mental health issues: loneliness. In an age of online interaction and personal disconnection, one in five Americans across all age groups report feelings of severe loneliness or social isolation.
Giving back also provides an effective antidote to solitude. Whether coaching a kids’ sports team or delivering supplies to the local food bank, a few hours of volunteering each week is a few hours spent engaged in meaningful interactions with others. These small acts don’t just bring people together. Individuals also get to share something about themselves—skills, or a passion for a particular cause. That sharing builds deeper personal connections and provides a powerful boost for personal well-being, according to mental health expert Dr. Michael Ungar, psychologist and professor of social work at Canada’s Dalhousie University.
One thing I’ve learned in my work and throughout my years with WE is that taking care of the world must include taking care of ourselves. The wonderful thing is, sometimes helping to make a healthier world also helps make a healthier you.
Written by Craig Kielburger, co-founder of WE Charity, a 4-star international charity working to excite and empower youth to get involved and give back in their communities. The organization also works in communities around the globe to expand economic opportunities and achieve sustainable change.