Volunteering & Mental Health
A few days back something small and totally random happened. I had a cup of coffee that I couldn’t drink at all. My stomach was full and I was thinking of dropping it in the trash can. My eyes caught those of a guard nearby who had a small umbrella against the scorching sun. I offered her the coffee and she happily accepted. Ever since then we greet each other warmly whenever we cross paths. It was a random act and I tried to figure out why I did that. Did I do that because I wanted to help her? Or did I do it because I feel good when I help someone?
The two questions are almost identical but they have different implications. If I did something because I felt good, there are chances I did it to feel good myself. This gives it a more selfish connotation. The other implies that I did just like that, without any expectation of reward. When you think about it, feeling good on doing something is a action-reward mechanism as well.
Something you might have heard often is that volunteering reduces depression. There are various articles that say volunteering releases Oxytocin which makes us feel good. Other points are that looking at people less fortunate than us gives us a perspective. They also say that having your mind occupied at all times gives it less time to be depressed. I tend to disagree with these opinions.
A Different View.
I have always said that I don’t believe seeing people less fortunate than us makes us feel better. I believe that it makes us repress our problems and issues for a while, but not for long. Repression of depression is not the same as curing it. If we turn away from our problems and believe that it could always be worse, at some point in time, the thought that it could always be better will also prop up and that is when the repressed issues will emerge with an unseen force. I agree that helping people releases oxytocin but again, it is a temporary respite, not a permanent fix.
It is also important to point out that no study has claimed to reduce depression is someone who had been diagnosed with clinical depression. They have said that, by volunteering, increase in severity of feelings of depression reduces. They haven’t said that a person who is depressed would be less depressed after this. This is something which we often fail to notice and end up giving one of our trademark misinformed advices.
The Depressed Mind.
Another thing about the depressed mind is that when it is told that something is going to help it, the chances of it actually helping decreases. This is a very peculiar and yet valid observation. It happened with me when I was told something would help me. My mind kept repeating that I cannot let it help me and it ended up having no effect. This is also why it is important to do something because you want to do it, not because you want something in return from it.
A depressed mind is very complex and hard to understand. It is always in a self destruct mode which makes help so hard to introduce.
Volunteering may help, but, like many possible solutions, it won’t be permanent.