How Volunteering May Help
Written by Dr Melissa Keogh, Clinical Psychologist, B.A. (Hons), D.Psych (Clinical)
The Australian Loneliness Report conducted in 2018 revealed that 1 in 4 Australians experience problematic levels of loneliness.
Which begs the question - what exactly is loneliness?
Loneliness can be defined as a subjective feeling of social isolation and distress whereby one’s personal need for connection falls short. It’s important to note that feeling lonely is different to being alone.
Loneliness vs Being Alone
Being alone does not necessarily mean one will feel lonely. Whilst this may be the case, it is also possible to be perfectly content in one’s own company. It’s also possible to feel lonely even in the presence of others if the connection doesn’t meet our needs.
When it comes to loneliness, research shows that the COVID 19 pandemic has had a significant impact on Australians’ loneliness levels.
COVID 19 and Loneliness
A recent 2020 study has found that 1 in 2 Australians report feeling lonelier since the pandemic, with young adults aged 18-25 reporting higher levels of loneliness than their older counterparts.
Interestingly, Victoria Police reported that during Melbourne’s 2020 stay at home restrictions the most common reason people gave when their vehicle was stopped and an infringement notice issued, was to visit loved ones - family, friends or acquaintances.
In addition to the large volume of Australians feeling lonely during 2020 research also reveals the physical and mental health impacts of loneliness on our citizens.
Physical and Mental Health Impacts of Loneliness in Australia
According to The Australian Loneliness Report (2018) loneliness is associated with poorer physical and mental health, poorer quality of life, increased risk of social interaction anxiety, and an increased risk of depression.
Loneliness has also been linked to a greater inflammation in response to acute stress in the body and has been shown to increase the likelihood of early mortality by 26% – a rate that is greater than that of obesity.
Given the clear implications of loneliness, it’s important to explore how to manage the distressing emotion.
One such strategy is to get out and about in the (physical or online) community and volunteer in a cause you are passionate about. By doing so you are able to meet like-minded people who share your interests, which may assist in making meaningful social connections. Indeed, meaningful and quality connections are key in managing loneliness.
Let’s take a closer look at Volunteering.
Volunteering is a great way to increase social connectedness and the mental health benefits of being socially connected include improved mood and lower stress and anxiety levels.
Research shows that among older Australians, volunteering over a longer period of time is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction compared with volunteering over shorter periods of time.
It goes without saying that volunteering also adds enormous value to the community and contributes to the betterment of others’ lives.
In Australia, over 6 million people – 36% of the population - a year volunteer their time and services and contribute more than $200 billion dollars to the economy.
Volunteering also tends to run in families with 70% of volunteers reporting they have a parent with volunteering experience.
So, how does one become a volunteer?
Volunteering – How To
The first step is to consider what you feel most passionate about and the areas you would like to volunteer in. Take some time here and think about whether you want to volunteer online/remotely or in person.
Secondly, consider the skills you have to offer and the time commitment you can make per week/fortnight or month. Keep in mind that it’s best to trial any new opportunities that do present first, so you can determine whether it’s a good fit and enjoyable for you.
Thirdly, compile a suitable volunteering resume outlining your previous volunteering and work experience, ensuring it is as professional as possible.
When you are ready to search for roles of interest, the Volunteering Australia (https://www.volunteeringaustralia.org/) website may be of assistance. The search function is easy to use and allows the user to type in an area of interest (e.g., dogs) and location, which subsequently produces a number of opportunities to choose from.
Once you’ve secured a position you may need to do some training and I advise that you check in with yourself after a few months to determine if you want to continue with the position or seek other opportunities.
For further advice regarding strategies to manage loneliness and any associated metal health issues you can speak to your doctor about a referral to a psychologist. Specifically, you can ask your GP about a Mental Health Care Plan which will entitle you to up to 20 sessions a year that attract a Medicare rebate.
The Australian Psychological Society website also has some additional resources regarding loneliness.
For more information on volunteering visit Volunteering Australia.
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