Involving Volunteers with Mental Health Issues

These top tips were shared at our recent peer learning session on ‘Involving Volunteers with Mental Health Issues’. We heard from Richard Howlett, Step Up Programme Manager at Volunteer Centre Hackney, and discussed barriers to volunteering for people with mental health issues, and what organisations could do to recruit and support them.

According to Mind, 1 in 4 people in England will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year, so there are likely to be people with mental health needs among your staff and volunteers. Supporting volunteers with mental health issues involves many things that are general good practice in management of all volunteers so having systems and cultures that are supportive to this group benefit everyone. Being inclusive of volunteers with mental health challenges can bring many benefits to your organisation, such as empathy, supportiveness and understanding to your work with service users. Focus on what people can do, not what they can’t.

In your communications talk about how volunteering can improve mental health (reducing stress, giving a sense of purpose, reducing isolation, increasing confidence, providing structure, etc). Share personal stories of how volunteering has benefited current volunteers (you do not need to mention mental health). Share social media content that talks openly and positively about mental health. You might consider creating a Mental Health Champion role and celebrating Mental Health Awareness Week (next year on 1-7 October 2023). Provide training on Mental Health First Aid or Mental Health Awareness.

People who are on a health or disability benefit may be anxious about volunteering. There is no restriction on the amount of time they can volunteer. They will not need to have a Work Capability Assessment just because they start volunteering. Although they need to let Jobcentre Plus know about any volunteering they start, they don’t need to provide evidence from their doctor. However, volunteers on disability benefits can encounter problems with Jobcentre Plus staff who do not know the rules about volunteering. You can support people by giving them accurate information about their right to volunteer. You can provide volunteers with a letter, explaining the flexible nature of volunteering, distinguishing it from paid work.

When it comes to your volunteer application process offer options. For some people a written application form may be a barrier, for others a phone call may be more daunting. Include a statement on inclusive recruitment in your application form. You can ask about support needs in the application form but keep it general as some people are not comfortable with disclosing sensitive information. Don’t make assumptions about needs. Talk to the volunteer about what might work for them. The individual is the expert on their situation. Keep your ‘interview’ informal and friendly – you might want to call it an ‘initial meeting’ or a ‘chat about volunteering’.

Be flexible on the times and commitment (eg start with one hour and building up, extra breaks, flexibility to attend appointments), the tasks (start small and build up) and the level of support. Support could be found from another source eg a volunteer buddy or a support worker.

Ask the volunteer whether they want other staff and volunteers to know about their mental health. They might want to tell people themselves or may ask you to do it on their behalf. A good induction is important so volunteers know what to expect, as well as having clear policies such as expenses, health & safety, safeguarding, lone working etc. Have social events and regular catch-ups, in private, or with their support person if needed. Look out for signs of deterioration in a volunteer’s mental health. Give supportive, specific and constructive feedback.

Many people with mental health issues may be long-term unemployed, or have had their career and education interrupted. Build links with employment and training providers offering training in areas like self-confidence, assertiveness, administration and IT skills.

Useful resources can be found at Mind, Red Cross, Thrive London and Money and Mental Health.

Find out more about our next training sessions.