Supporting and recruiting volunteers with mental health issues

Tips for recruiting and supporting volunteers with mental health issues.

Volunteers are not a “one size fits all” role for most organizations. Volunteer managers know that volunteers come to our organizations with a variety of skills, talents and experiences. Talented managers are able to recognize those differences and find the best fit for a volunteer to ensure they are successful and fulfilled. Volunteers can also come to our organizations with mental health issues. Sometimes, mental health issues are apparent and the volunteer will feel comfortable discussing them openly. Other times, the volunteer may choose not to disclose that information. Either way, are you prepared to effectively support volunteers who experience mental health issues?

First, remember that people have a variety of reasons and motivations for wanting to volunteer. Regardless of why a volunteer has shown interest in your organization or what specific volunteer role you have recruited them for, you are responsible for ensuring they are well supported.

In an article from Touchstone Volunteer Projects, Nadisa Miraf explains there are points to consider if you are engaging volunteers with mental health issues. Please see the full article, “Supporting volunteers experiencing mental health difficulties,” for a complete listing of points, but a few are captured below:

  • Check that an individual really wants to volunteer and has realistic expectations of what he or she can offer.
  • The volunteer’s specialized knowledge and lived experience of mental health might be a resource for how they want to assist your organization. If interested, provide them with the necessary skills and training to develop peer support groups to support other people or volunteers.
  • Offer appropriate training to equip them with the knowledge and skills of both the organization and their role.
  • Have clear defined roles and expectations. All volunteers should have a clear explanation of their roles and responsibilities, as well as what they are and not allowed to do to meet their responsibilities. Start with a small commitment then gradually build on this.
  • Match roles to volunteers. Every volunteer will have different strengths and weaknesses and will find different situations stressful or rewarding, so match roles to their skills and preferences.
  • Ensure resources are in place for volunteers to perform their role.
  • Provide regular reviews and ongoing support to volunteers using appropriate methods, i.e., regular one-to-one/group supervision, and support group meetings with other volunteers. Ensure volunteers know who to contact if they need support and how to get in touch with them.
  • Promote a positive and healthy working environment.
  • Encourage strong social support between volunteers by providing opportunities for social occasions which can be combined with volunteer recognition events.
  • Good communication empowers and informs volunteers, keeping them update with both the organization and their progress. It also helps to identify any problems before they become too serious.
  • Value all volunteers’ contributions and offer frequent informal and formal feedback.
  • As an organization, know your limits. If you’re not able to offer suitable placements, then don’t. Instead, offer details of alternative organizations where volunteer opportunities may be available.

Regardless of a volunteer’s mental health issues, you should be prepared to motivate, support, train, recognize and provide feedback to all of your volunteers. The above suggestions are really part of any skilled volunteer manager’s toolkit. Michigan State University Extension suggests using them to best meet the needs of all of your volunteers, especially those with known mental health issues. Overall, as with working across any difference or ability, it’s important to be informed about the difference, communicate openly and work with the whole individual rather than reducing them to one characteristic or trait.

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