Studies show that volunteering is good for our mental health. It’s known to decrease stress levels, anxiety, and depression, and boost self-confidence and overall life satisfaction. In mental health care settings, volunteering is also widely understood to be an effective way to improve client engagement as well, leading to better participation in meaningful activity, improved mood, and better quality of life.
Since 2014, residents in the Schizophrenia Recovery Program have had the opportunity to participate in a unique therapeutic group that’s all about volunteering.
Weekly meetings are a combination of “in-class” sessions that focus on skill-building and readiness, and supported excursions into the Ottawa community to pre-planned short-term group volunteering placements.
The goal is for the group to volunteer for two hours at three different locations during the ten-week session.
In past years, the group volunteered at the Ottawa Food Bank (both in the warehouse and the farm), Fletcher Wildlife Gardens, the Parkdale Food Centre, and the Ottawa Mission. During the pandemic, the group switched to virtual volunteering and made cat toys for local rescues and shelters.
Amanda Wannamaker is an occupational therapist at The Royal who co-leads the volunteer group along with her colleague Kathy Sager, a recreation therapist.
Last year Wannamaker reached out to Ottawa Community Housing (OCH), the largest social housing provider in Ottawa. The two groups banded together and built garden boxes at an OCH property to be used by the residents there. When it was completed, the OCH volunteers came to The Royal and together they built a bench with garden boxes for residents and families of the Recovery Program.
“The clients who helped with that actually got to create something permanent and beautiful, but they also got to contribute to the community,” reflects Wannamaker. “That’s a really nice kind of partnership.”
The experience was so encouraging that the two organizations are planning a second round of similar building projects to take place this year.
Wannamaker and Sager have received positive feedback from their clients about the experience. “While volunteering I learned that I could fend for myself in a work environment. This group gave me hope,” wrote one of the clients in the group.
Volunteering gives back what schizophrenia takes away
Whether it’s returning to school or work, or maintaining an improved self-care or activity level on a daily basis, the Recovery Program works with clients who are trying to boost their independent living skills and re-engage in meaningful activities.
The Recovery Program volunteer group fosters those goals by helping clients identify their strengths and build confidence, which can be an especially important part of the recovery journey.
“People in the Recovery Program often come in with big life goals like returning to independent living, work or school, but that piece in between can be very difficult for people,” explains Wannamaker.
“One of the most difficult parts of recovery for many of our clients is managing negative symptoms, which is what's taken away from people – their motivation, their initiation, their joy in doing things. Through meaningful activity we can start restarting their life roles, but also start overcoming some of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia in a supportive environment.”
When volunteer group comes to an end, the participants receive a certificate with a tally of their volunteer hours. In the final in-class session, they are encouraged to reflect on their volunteer experience – what they learned, what went well, what they can bring forward.
“That confidence piece is often what comes out of that reflection,” says Wannamaker. “People have a better sense of who they are after volunteer group.”