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The Benefits of Volunteering During Treatment for Young Adults

Est. reading time: 4 mins
Posted Under: Treatment Insights

Clinically Reviewed by: Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, LICSW


Service is one of the 12 guiding principles at The Dorm. Below, Amanda Fialk, PhD, Partner & Chief Clinical Officer, weighs in on the proven benefits of service for young adult mental health.

Service is one of our 12 guiding principles at The Dorm, alongside Integrity, Willingness, Acceptance, and Perseverance, to name a few. During individual coaching, group work, and even on the first page of our client handbook, these core values serve as valuable reminders for reflection and growth throughout the therapeutic process.

Serving others through volunteering and community service plays a critical role in building healthy societies, filling gaps in our workforce when it comes to serving marginalized populations and our environment. But why is service, in particular, so important in our mental health journey?

Along with the social and environmental benefits of volunteering, research shows that giving back is vital to mental health and wellbeing.

The Benefits of Volunteering as Part of Mental Health Treatment

Research shows that volunteering increases wellbeing and that volunteers have lower baseline levels of depression. There are a variety of reasons for this.

On a physical level, it seems as though humans are designed to be social and in a community, serving one another. Research shows us that when you help someone your brain releases feel-good hormones into the body, and creates spikes in brain activity.

Similar to this phenomenon, volunteering can help increase motivation by providing a sense of accomplishment and efficacy. Productivity builds on itself – when you accomplish one small task, for example dropping off a meal to someone in need, the sense of satisfaction sets you up for success throughout the rest of the day. 

Another benefit of volunteering for young adults who are struggling with their mental health is that it can keep the mind distracted from destructive habits. (Distraction is a powerful coping mechanism in crisis.) When you are engaged in a focused activity, your mind is distracted from negative thinking and self criticism. Whether we are working with adults, children, pets, or in nature a meaningful connection can take our mind away from our own worries and anxieties, and volunteering is shown to reduce stress and anxiety levels across multiple settings. 

The Benefits of Volunteering for Young Adult Social Growth

Young adulthood is a time of immense development when it comes to forging social relationships – and serving others provides a myriad of benefits when it comes to developing the social skills that can result in a rich life of community involvement. Unfortunately, after the past few years of isolation due to the pandemic, young adults have had to isolate themselves more than ever before. This has taken a toll on young adult mental health; increasing substance use and thoughts of self harm for adults aged 18-24.

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Now that many organizations have re-opened their doors for in-person volunteering, getting involved in local organization can be a crucial line to one-on-one connection – a time to turn off the screen and connect with people you might not otherwise encounter. Volunteering helps individuals to meet new people and  develop new relationships.

At The Dorm, we’ve seen time and time again that one of the best ways to make new friends and strengthen relationships is to participate in a shared activity. Over the years we’ve prioritized forming relationships with local organizations in Washington D.C. and New York City so our young adult clients can benefit from our connections with organizations like Care for the Homeless, New York Cares, Gigi’s Playhouse, Stars of Hope, True Colors, and so many others.

As mental health practitioners, parents, and friends, we can help introduce young adults to the social benefits of reaching out to local community centers, beautifying urban gardens, and working alongside team members at a local book fair. Not only can volunteering prevent and combat social isolation, but dedicating time as a volunteer can help an individual expand their network and practice social skills that will benefit them for years to come.

Finally, volunteering helps increase social confidence! Oftentimes when you put yourself into a new setting, you are learning new skills. This is especially important for young adults who are just starting out in the workforce, and exploring the possibilities of different careers. In growing a skill set to make a difference for others, individuals can gain a sense of pride and identity, which can lead to having a more positive view of oneself. Volunteering in a chosen field for a short period of time can give clients an enormous opportunity for exploration and skill-building setting them up for future success.

The Benefits of Volunteering for Physical Health

In today’s digital-first world, it’s more important than ever to be intentional about prioritizing movement and “IRL” activities in daily life. Whether it’s volunteering to help walk dogs at a local shelter, or putting in the physical labor it takes to beautify a city’s neighborhood gardens, volunteering helps people stay physically and mentally active throughout the day.

Volunteering as an environmental steward has the added benefit of improving physical health.

For example, during our recent partnership with the JCC at our New York location, three Dorm clients were hired in an ongoing service opportunity to beautify our neighboring Verdi Square. Gardening, cleaning up litter, re-mulching the square, and socializing with locals are all activities that activate the body and the brain in ways we might not otherwise engage with our surroundings.

The Benefits of Volunteering for Young Adult Spiritual Development

Last but not least, there is a spiritual component of volunteering that goes beyond specific religious affiliation.

By enjoying time spent in service to others, individuals feel a sense of meaning, purpose, fulfillment  and appreciation, both given and received. A willingness to help others in need and to tap into compassion and empathy can put life into a new perspective. With this in mind, it’s interesting to relate our value of Service to two other core values: Humility and Willingness. Putting others first and humbling yourself to new experiences is a part of a rich and fulfilling life.

We believe that community service is one of the most profound ways we can give back and positively impact our greater community. Serving our communities will always be a priority at The Dorm – not only because it makes society stronger, but because of the sense of joy, responsibility, and wellbeing we’ve seen it bring to our young adult clients time and time again. Through engaging in ongoing service to others, we forge identities and better ourselves, as well as our communities.

Volunteering in Treatment, New York City, NY

Volunteering in Treatment in Washington, D.C.

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