Jessica Taplin: Volunteering can have a positive impact on the young

More research is needed to discover the effects of volunteering on young people's mental health, writes the chief executive of vInspired

< This article has been amended; see final paragraph

Recently, a survey was published by the universities of Southampton and Birmingham that bought to light some interesting statistics about the benefits of volunteering for the over 40s. The headline in Third Sector read "Volunteering helps the mental health of older people but not the young, study finds".

Incidentally there are a few important things to note about the findings reported in the article and how this has changed in the last eight years since the longitudinal study, which ended in 2008, was carried out.

As evidenced by various youth-focused programmes, we can certainly map a significant increase in measures of the wellbeing of participants, notably their understanding of life satisfaction, sense of worth, happiness and anxiety. Likewise, wider sector research suggests that youth social action can help to combat mental health issues by giving young people a sense of achievement, empowerment and worth.

As the Service Nation 2020 report from Demos notes, a 2014 survey of youth social action found that people who had taken part in youth social action rated 8.6 out of 10 for life satisfaction, while those who had not rated 8 out of 10. The Citizenship Foundation Programme interim evaluation found that participants in the programme had a more positive outlook, with levels of anxiety 22 per cent lower than those in the control group. And a 2014 study by Join In found that participants in sport volunteering programmes had 10 per cent higher levels of self-esteem, emotional wellbeing and resilience than non-volunteers, and were 15 per cent less likely to worry or feel anxious.

There appear to be few studies, however, that look at the relationship between volunteering and wellbeing as broken down by different ages. Therefore we should be cautious about drawing firm conclusions on the effects of volunteering on people’s wellbeing by age group.

It is important to also note that mental health, while hugely important, is only one of many benefits that people derive from volunteering – young people also cite confidence, communication and resilience as key outcomes of their volunteering journey, all of which do indeed in themselves contribute to the general wellbeing of young people.

We shouldn’t necessarily assume that all benefits should apply equally to all age groups – in fact, if you look at the motivations that young people cite for wanting to take part in social action, these are overwhelmingly focused on strong intrinsic motivations such as societal benefit and helping others.  

I would also question whether older people are in fact more able to recognise and articulate improved mental health – it’s not necessarily something that they can naturally articulate without our support and guidance.

I understand that the transition from childhood to adulthood is increasingly complex and not straightforward. Wellbeing is a key factor in this complexity – Public Health England, for example, report that more than half of mental health problems in adult life, excluding dementia, start by the age of 14 and 75 per cent by age 18. I welcome research that adds to our understanding in this area, and also suggest a need for further study on volunteering, wellbeing and its application to young people to address knowledge gaps and to better understand how volunteering supports young people.

Jessica Taplin is the chief executive of vInspired

The original headline said 'Caution required when linking volunteering with wellbeing' and has been amended at the request of the charity

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