The role volunteering plays in improving mental and physical health.

Five years ago I went through a traumatic experience. I was running my own business, and I had grown my turnover to close to a million Rand for my last financial year, so it appeared things were going well.

Five years previous to that, I had a mild stroke for which there was no physical reason – all the tests and hospitalisations had turned up no results and it was attributed to inherited bad genes, which left me diagnosed with Hypertension. I was lucky that the physical damage done was limited to a slight loss of peripheral vision and possibly some minor personality changes. I took time off (I was privileged enough to be able to do so) and focused on returning to physical health with a good diet and exercise. I was soon thriving again and that led to me opening said business.

As the business grew, I faced many setbacks as one does, none more so than the sudden and tragic death of my then 37 year old life partner who had a long battle with mental health illness and drug addiction. Having pushed the boundaries of risk, I got home one Tuesday evening to find them no longer alive in my bathroom. This was the second person who had died within the last few months due to drug related issues. This time, it broke me.

I sold the business, paid off all the remaining debts and moved back to my home town to be closer to family and friends. I found it near impossible to find work, though truthfully I was in no condition for employment. I did freelance work and entered into a period of therapy and self care. My descent to the bottom took a few years, where I found myself unemployable and unemployed. Luckily I had people who could help and support me. At 45 years old I found myself back living in my old room with my parents, desperate to sort my life out, mentally and financially. I made many self discoveries in that time and gradually found I was able to reintegrate back into mainstream society. I continued freelancing but was still struggling to find work. I plunged myself into working with a Psychologist and doing exercises daily as a coping mechanism.

To feel more useful, I began looking for a charity organisation to join, sending emails and making phone calls to various institutions I thought I could volunteer for, with no real success, until I joined a mutual friend who was attending an event in an informal settlement creating a food garden. Enter the Khuthaza Foundation. This was a year ago.

The members of Khuthaza embraced me and within months I was asked to become their newest member. I did so without a second thought, and although it was not my field of knowledge, I was quickly involved in the many and varied projects they do. Even if the tasks we take on seem enormous and sometimes pointless (like trying to make our oceans plastics free or feeding the hungry of South Africa) I found my strength, mentally and physically, improving. And with that came more confidence. This was further evidenced by my latest visit to the cardiologist who confirmed that I was in the best shape I had been for a while. Diet and exercise also played a major role in this and is why Khuthaza Foundation is pushing an agenda of vegetable gardens as a means of providing healthy, nutritious food to those in underprivileged areas.

According to Harvard Medical School, “Studies have shown that volunteering helps people who donate their time feel more socially connected, thus warding off loneliness and depression. But I was surprised to learn that volunteering has positive implications that go beyond mental health. A growing body of evidence suggests that people who give their time to others might also be rewarded with better physical health—including lower blood pressure and a longer lifespan.”

Stephanie Watson Executive Editor, Harvard Women’s Health Watch https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/volunteering-may-be-good-for-body-and-mind-201306266428

A study by the American Psychological association APA Psychnet showed:

Volunteering helps counteract the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety.
The social contact aspect of helping and working with others can have a profound effect on your overall psychological well-being. Nothing relieves stress better than a meaningful connection to another person. Other animals have also been shown to improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety.

Volunteering combats depression.
Volunteering keeps you in regular contact with others and helps you develop a solid support system, which in turn protects you against depression.

Volunteering makes you happy.
By measuring hormones and brain activity, researchers have discovered that being helpful to others delivers immense pleasure. Human beings are hard-wired to give to others. The more we give, the happier we feel.

Volunteering increases self-confidence.
You are doing good for others and the community, which provides a natural sense of accomplishment. Your role as a volunteer can also give you a sense of pride and identity. And the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to have a positive view of your life and future goals.

Volunteering provides a sense of purpose.
Older adults, especially those who have retired or lost a spouse, can find new meaning and direction in their lives by helping others. Whatever your age or life situation, volunteering can help take your mind off your own worries, keep you mentally stimulated, and add more zest to your life.

Volunteering helps you stay physically healthy.
Studies have found that those who volunteer have a lower mortality rate than those who do not. Older volunteers tend to walk more, find it easier to cope with everyday tasks, are less likely to develop high blood pressure, and have better thinking skills. Volunteering can also lessen symptoms of chronic pain and reduce the risk of heart disease.

(https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2013-21685-006 ) showed that volunteers of the age of 50 had reduced risk of Hypertension if doing more than 200 hours of volunteering, and according to https://www.helpguide.org/

The greatest benefit I have derived has been from keeping busy. There is always something, even if I am sitting at home making ecobricks, or writing articles like this one or going into communities to see where we can be of service, leads me to distraction, leaving less time to wallow in self pity. There are of course days where I am depressed and find myself doing nothing, but we all have those days.

As I found out yesterday, while I was trying to open a bank account to work online,
FICA (The Financial Intelligence Centre Act (38 of 2001) (the FIC Act) came into effect on the 1st of July 2003. The FIC Act was introduced to fight financial crime, such as money laundering, tax evasion, and terrorist financing activities. The FIC Act brings South Africa in line with similar legislation in other countries designed to reveal the movement of monies derived from unlawful activities and thereby curbing money laundering and other criminal activities.)  continues to exclude the majority of South Africans from opening bank accounts and being active in the economy. I have a privileged existence, yet could not open a new bank account, which has prevented me from working online. Although I have since found a way around that. It led me to realise how much more the majority of South Africans living in informal areas must be suffering and how much they need help from organisations such as ourselves to uplift, educate and help them become more self sufficient, most importantly creating opportunities for them to control their own food source without relying on government or charity.

There are so many ways YOU can help. Whether it is working physically, donating financially or just being supportive by helping with the environment (recycling) and education (listening to Podcasts or reading articles, attending Webinars or watching videos). Ask us how. This small action could vastly improve your mental and physical health, as I have found out, and the benefit of helping others is the basis of most societies and religious institutions. It has also afforded me the chance to meet other South Africans and see how they live and survive and I am making friends whom before I would never be able to speak to or learn about their circumstances.

My thanks goes out to Bianca, Sipho, Erika, Bluebell and everyone else who has welcomed me into their midst and made me feel useful, relevant and a part of something greater than myself.

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