Finding Myself in Helping Others (by Karen Cordell)

Culminating Project Question:

How does the act of volunteering improve mental health?



hyperboleandahalfI chose this question because I struggled deeply with depression this term. Mental illness runs in my family, and I was being treated for bipolar disorder, which turned out to be a misdiagnosis. All term long I have been struggling while the doctor and I played the medication waiting game. Just this term alone I have been on seven different medications. During this process, I became deeply suicidal and lost all ability to find pleasure in anything. Although extreme, it only lasted at this urgent depth for about a week, but it was the worst week I have experience since I started struggling with this as a teenager. Everything I did felt like I was walking through quicksand, but by being required to leave my house for a volunteer position, I discovered the more I gave back, the better I began to feel about myself. The 1 ½ – 2 ½ hours spent volunteering alleviated me from the bondage of self. I was no longer concerned about how much pain I was in, but was distracted by the need to help someone/something else out. The social interaction was helpful as well, although the first couple weeks I was not capable of participating in conversation very much, yet as my health improved, I was able to come out of my shell and make new friends. I deeply value the time I spent this term at SCRAP (and will continue to spend). Volunteering has become a valuable tool in my kit against severe depression. In the future I would also like to do some research as to find out whether volunteer work is recommended as a form of treatment for people being treated for mental illness.

The Research

Article 1:

Poulin, Michael J. “Volunteering Predicts Health Among Those Who Value Others: Two National Studies.” Health Psychology 33.2 (2013): PsycARTICLES. Web. 28 May 2014.

I like this article because it argues that although helping others does impact the mental health of the benefactor, it only does so if the benefactor has positive views toward other people. In other words, the benefits of volunteering only affect those who already care about other people. Honestly, this is a very dense article, but the information is interesting. It does highlight the fact that there are indeed mental health benefits to volunteering, albiet those who lack basic compassion cannot benefit in any way.

Article 2:

Cole, Terri. “So What’s So Good About Giving?” The Huffington Post., 03 Dec. 2012. Web. 28 May 2014.

I especially enjoy this resource because it is accessible and relevant. The author uses personal anecdotes and references some scientific studies to back her argument. It is a helpful piece because it illustrates how to use my own ideas in a cohesive manner. It particularly helps me gather my own thoughts and outline them a bit. I like the voice she uses, and that it is from a well known publication.

Article 3:

Musick, Marc A., and John Wilson. “Volunteering and Depression: The Role of Psychological and Social Resources in Different Age Groups.” Social Science and Medicine 56.2 (2003): 259-69. ScienceDirect. Web. 28 May 2014.

This resource is helpful because it examines data exploring the benefits of volunteering across age groups. It specifically highlights higher benefits in older individuals (ages 65+). It implores that, “Volunteering can reduce feelings of powerlessness that often accompany the transition into retirement…volunteering is particularly useful for older people because its productive nature offers a way of gaining social approval as well as improved self-esteem.”

I like this resource because it is a peer reviewed study that carefully measures data (I can explain the constructs of this collection process further if suggested) to analyze five hypotheses: Hypothesis 1. Psychological resources mediate the negative effect of volunteering on depression.

Hypothesis 2. Social resources mediate the negative effect of volunteering on depression.

Hypothesis 3. The longer a person volunteers the fewer depressive symptoms that person has.

Hypothesis 4. The negative effect of volunteering on depression is stronger among the elderly.

Hypothesis 5. The effect of religious volunteering on depression is stronger than the effect of secular

This is an article that gives clear and concise information related to my research question, and backs it’s arguments with tangible evidence. Although a bit dense, it is a valuable resource.

The Public Writing

Instructor Note: Karen chose to write a personal letter to the director of SCRAP detailing her own experiences volunteering and the impact on her well-being.  She has also reached out to support any future efforts at SCRAP to workshop around these issues.  The letter is not posted here as it is personal.  Thank you, Karen, for sharing your process and research!



  1. Jeff Nelsen


    This is a very personal piece of writing that many would not be comfortable sharing. I applaud you for telling your story, as I think many can relate on some level. This piece of writing could change others lives who deal with depression. The act of volunteering benefits the soul and helps heal on many levels.

    I hope that you repost your blog to other volunteer/depression blogs. This topic has much to be explored. Thank you for sharing and hope you continue the good fight.

    Jeff Nelsen

  2. Kahlene

    Dear Karen,
    Great work. I really appreciated that you were so open and honest about your past. I know it must have took a lot of bravery on your part to share with all of us your personal struggles and how you overcame it all. It is amazing that through your volunteering and giving you felt much better, what a great topic. I want you to know that you are not alone. I to have struggled with depression most of my life. I never sought out medical remedies, but I did change my outlook, my perspectives and my ways of thinking. The sources you gave here were very insightful and helpful. I can see why you chose them. I wish you had gave a bit more reasons as to why you did chose each and more of why they fit your theme most of it was self explanatory, but just to juice it up would have been nice, but other than that great work.

    Your strongest part in this piece was your grammar, your work cited, and you personal insights. I really was drawn to it significantly because of your emotional background. I hope you know that you are a very strong, brilliant woman; one who has overcome so much. You have battled with depression, but you lived to tell your story and that in and of itself says so much about how resilient you truly are. Hold on to that and push through. You will continue to make it through just keep on staying positive.

    Great piece here, wonderfully written and put together. I hope the best for you in your future endeavors. I hope nothing but the best for you in your life. Stay positive and shine through the hard times. It was a pleasure working along side you and reviewing your work this term. I know you will conquer all obstacles that come your way academically and any other way.


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