How to Volunteer with Mental Health Patients

teen being interviewed by a woman
You don't have to be a mental health professional to help out people in need.

There is an overwhelming need for mental health services, and the government agencies, nonprofit organizations, substance-abuse centers and mental health clinics that provide these services are often understaffed and overwhelmed. This is where you come in. Regardless of the nature of your talents, skills or educational background, your willingness to volunteer with mental health patients is all you need to make a difference in countless lives in your community.

The needs are great. One national survey in 2004 found that nearly 6 percent of Americans (about one in 17) had a serious mental health illness that required professional help, while nearly 30 percent -- almost 58 million Americans age 18 or older -- had a diagnosable mental health disorder [source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. About 45 percent of people with mental health issues have more than one mental health issue they're grappling with [source: National Institute of Mental Health]. The majority of disabled people between the ages of 15 and 44 are disabled because of mental health issues, and most of those issues are related to severe depression.


When it comes to kids and mental health disorders, the statistics are just as grim. About 20 percent of children have a diagnosable mental health issue, and it's estimated that about 80 percent of those won't receive the treatment they need [source: Kane].

When a person with a mental health disorder doesn't receive the treatment he or she needs, the results can be catastrophic: More than 32,000 Americans committed suicide in 2004, and more than nine out of 10 of them had a diagnosable mental illness [source: National Institute of Mental Health]. Three times as many people die from suicide in Minnesota as from homicide [source: Mental Health Association of Minnesota]. In 2006, more than 4 million Americans visited emergency rooms for mental health-related issues, and 2.4 million inpatient hospital stays were a result of mental disorders [source: CDC]. The average length of stay was just one week, after which patients were discharged to seek help elsewhere.

You don't have to be a professional to lend a hand (or an ear) to mental health patients. There are many ways you can volunteer with mental health patients, so keep reading to find out how.


Mental Health Volunteers and Patients: Who Needs Your Help?

group therapy session
Volunteers work with a wide variety of people who need someone to talk to.

Not everyone who helps mental health patients in their time of need is a professional care provider. Many people volunteer their time to help those struggling with mental health issues. Some (or, arguably, all) volunteer out of a desire to help their fellow citizens in their attempts to clear the hurdle of a mental or emotional disorder. Others volunteer as a way to find out if mental health care is a profession they would like to pursue. Some who volunteer have already decided they would like to pursue a career in psychology or social work and are volunteering to learn and gain experience in the field until they're qualified to do so professionally.

As a volunteer, you'll have the opportunity to work with a wide variety of people who are dealing with mental health issues. While some forms of mental illness statistically affect certain demographics more than others, overall no individual of any age group, gender, race or even personality type is excluded from the possibility of developing a mental health disorder.


You may work with clients who suffered severe abuse in their childhoods, or who flourished personally and professionally until their lives seemingly fell apart overnight due to a mental health condition or substance abuse problem. You may interact with clients who are homeless, or who successfully hold down jobs as doctors, police officers or teachers. Some may have gotten "into the system" of their own free will, and some may have been hospitalized against their wishes. Some welcome assistance, and others resist it.

Regardless of who you are and regardless of who you help, volunteering with mental health patients is an important way to make a very real difference in the lives of those who are going through a very difficult time.


Expectations for Mental Health Volunteers

Before you start, you should know that your involvement at any level can make a great deal of difference in the lives of those in need of mental health care. Often, clients have needs that can't be met by stretched-thin state and local agencies, overwhelmed private and public hospitals and underfunded nonprofits. Because of this, your volunteer efforts can have a direct impact on the life of someone in need of a helping hand.

Once you begin as a volunteer, you should expect to be provided with the appropriate training and resources to perform your assigned tasks. Your work should be supervised, and it should be work that both interests you and suits your skill set. You should receive regular feedback and have access to a supervisor or volunteer coordinator who can assist you with any problems, questions or need for additional training.


Volunteers have expectations and responsibilities of their own. You may be required to work a certain number of hours per week or per month. Once you commit to a certain number of hours, it's important that you fulfill your obligations. In the same way that volunteers' efforts have a meaningful impact on mental health patients, your obligations and responsibilities are real as well. You can't just "blow off" a scheduled shift, thinking it won't be that big a deal because it's "just volunteer work." People are counting on you as a volunteer and expect you to honor your commitments.

You need to learn your job well, understand what is expected of you and ask questions or seek out any additional help you may need. Finally, you'll need to be discreet and respectful when it comes to the environment in which you will work. You may learn very private things about individuals, and you must maintain strict confidentiality so that the trust that others might have spent years developing isn't adversely affected by your actions.


Getting Started Volunteering with Mental Health Patients

There are many ways a volunteer can help out those living with mental health issues. If you have a willingness to help, your unique skills, traits and availability can likely be put to very good use. There are several ways you can find volunteer opportunities:

  • Call or visit a local treatment facility or hospital. Most mental health clinics and substance-abuse facilities have volunteer coordinators that can help fit your particular skills and interests to an ongoing volunteer program on site.
  • Contact Mental Health America. Mental Health America is a national nonprofit organization that focuses on mental health advocacy and education. Mental Health America can help you find your local Mental Health Association, which are nonprofit affiliates that can help you connect with volunteer opportunities.
  • Check out VolunteerMatch is a large online resource that helps pair volunteers and nonprofits around the nation. After listing your city or ZIP code, this service will provide a list of available volunteer opportunities, many of which are related to the mental health field.
  • Use state or local government resources. You can find volunteer opportunities and resources by contacting your state's Department of Health and Human Services. You can do this in person, by phone or online. Your city or county government will also have staff members who are able to point you in the right direction when it comes to volunteering with local mental health care providers and agencies.

On the next page, we'll talk about possible volunteer opportunities.


Mental Health Volunteer Opportunities

So how can you help? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Work the phone. Many communities and clinics have 24-hour hotlines that can be called by those in crisis, or simply by those who are seeking referrals or other information related to mental health issues or care. There may be one "help desk" that services a wide range of needs, or the hotline may be specific to suicide prevention or other special needs. Volunteers typically undergo a training period during which they learn everything they need to know to help those who call the hotline.Not all phone volunteering deals with inbound calls. Many people dealing with mental health disorders receive outpatient care or are recovering at home after a period of hospitalization. Volunteer organizations and community social services often have needs for volunteers to make short, friendly phone calls on a weekly or even daily basis to people in need of someone to listen. Some organizations may have a "call center" in operation, but often these calls can be made from your home or cell phone.
  • Become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). Nearly 800,000 children have been removed from their homes because of parental neglect, abuse or other dangerous domestic living situations. Many of these children deal with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Kids in these circumstances are bounced around the legal system and live in a succession of foster homes and group homes with little to no sense of stability in their lives.CASA is an organization seeking volunteers who will serve as advocates for individual children. CASA volunteers stay involved with a child no matter where he or she is in the system, report regularly to judges and social workers on the well-being of the youth assigned to them and often serve as the only continuous presence in the life of a troubled child. Volunteer training is provided by CASA programs throughout the nation, and almost a quarter-million abused and neglected children are helped each year by CASA volunteers [source: National CASA]. You don't need previous experience, a background in social work or educational achievements to volunteer, just a willingness to help make sure troubled kids receive the social care and mental health resources they need.
  • Take the wheel. Many clinics need volunteer drivers to take clients on outings or transport them to and from different health care providers.

We've got some more ways to volunteer with mental health services on the next page.


More Ways to Volunteer with Mental Health Patients

man doing handywork
Don't underestimate how useful your skills can be.

Not much of a phone person? That's OK, here are some other ways to get involved that might suit you:

  • Help raise awareness about mental health. Volunteers who don't have prior experience with mental health care can help out by organizing in or participating in letter-writing campaigns to newspapers and politicians. Volunteers who do have some experience in the mental health field can keep community leaders and members informed on mental health programs, issues and needs that are relevant to the community. Volunteers are also needed to make presentations, host informational sessions and serve as ambassadors to the community at large.
  • Put your skills to work. No matter if you're a computer whiz, a cubicle-dweller in your company's human resources department or an electrician, your skills can likely be put to good use. Mental health care facilities and clinics require maintenance and upkeep, whether it's painting, structural refurbishment or computer networking. Phone systems need rewiring, leaky faucets need fixing and administrative tasks like scheduling and payroll need to be performed in order to keep the ship afloat.
  • Put away the golf clubs and go executive. If you have skills in the corporate world, you can apply your talents by joining a board of directors to help govern and manage the finances of a nonprofit mental health care provider. You could also join an advisory council, that promotes the goals and vision of the care-providing agency by providing guidance and new ideas about outreach, education and management.
  • Build bridges with your language skills. If you're fluent in two or more languages, you can help organizations and clinics reach out to communities that might otherwise be out of reach, as well as help non-English-speaking patients and family members communicate with administrative and clinical staff members.
  • Raise much-needed funds. Help nonprofits and mental health organizations supplement (or even wholly subsidize) their budget through a variety of fundraisers, such as auctions, dinner events and golf tournaments.
  • Clerical assistance. Fliers need printing, brochures need bundling and letters need mailing.

These are just some of the ways you can volunteer your time and skills to mental health patients. To find out how you can help, contact a mental health care provider near you, or start by contacting a national organization that can put you in touch with a nearby volunteering opportunity. And don't forget to see the next page for lots more information on volunteering.



Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "FastStats: Mental Health." May 15, 2009. (July 1, 2009)
  • Kane, Andrea M. "Little progress, many holes in kids' mental health system." CNN. Dec. 9, 2008.
  • Mayo Clinic. "Volunteer: It's Good For You." Jan. 15, 2009.
  • Mental Health America.
  • Mental Health America of Arizona.
  • Mental Health America of Greater Dallas. "Volunteer." (July 1, 2009)
  • Mental Health Association of Frederick County. "Volunteer Opportunities." July 1, 2009.
  • Mental Health Association of Minnesota.
  • Mental Health Association of Minnesota. "Volunteer Handbook." (July 1, 2009)
  • Mental Health Association in North Carolina, Inc.
  • National Institute of Mental Health. "Statistics." March 31, 2009. (June 30, 2009)
  • National Institute of Mental Health. "The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America." 2008. (June 29, 2009)
  • Smith, Carol. "A 'gravely disabled' mental health care system." Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Sept. 23, 2008.
  • South Carolina Department of Mental Health. "Volunteer Services." (July 1, 2009)
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "The Prevalence and Correlates of Serious Mental Illness (SMI) in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R)." The National Comorbidity Survey Replication. 2004.