How Mental Health and Social Good Interact
Disclaimer: Please note that this article is from our old blog site. This article was originally published on October 30th, 2020 and the original author of this article is Mukthi Kaup.
Our mental health directly affects how we relate to others. As a student at Georgia Tech, I have faced challenges with my mental health before, and I’ve found that a common response to “I’m having a hard time with my mental health” is “try to take care of yourself!”. While this is sage advice, I have realized that something that makes me feel much better than taking care of myself is taking care of others. Helping others, in one small way or another, is something that has always helped me in times of trouble. I started to wonder how this sort of thought could be applied to a wider scope of helping others, and after joining Bits of Good, I became more intrigued with the concept of how social good could improve mental health. This article briefly explores some of the science behind mental health and acts of service.
Helping Regulates Your Emotions
We can start with a University of Pittsburgh study conducted in 2018, that examined the correlation between giving habits and positive brain activity. Participants had the ability to perform an act of service for themselves, a person they knew, or a charity. Brain scans were taken before and after the acts, and the differences in each were fascinating; participants that chose to help another person showed increased activity in “reward centers” of the brain, and decreased activity in regions of the brain that affect the body’s physical response to negative stimuli, like stress. This rush of positivity that comes with helping plays into the regulation of emotion.
Stephen G. Post, the director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University, discusses how helping actions allow you to take “the mind and emotions off the self” and thus overcome anxiety and rumination. Beyond this, there is evidence that helping others to regulate their emotions and anxieties can help us learn to regulate our own. Psychology Today’s Marianna Pogosyan says that the two most common ways to do this is through acceptance and reappraisal, processes that include showing empathy, validating others’ feelings, and helping them think differently about their situations. The Mental Health Organization UK concurs, and states that acts of kindness toward others helps to keep our own problems in perspective and makes us more optimistic and grateful.
Pro-Social Behavior Reduces Isolation
Pogosyan also describes how these positive feelings we associate with helping others “reinforces our sense of relatedness to others, thus helping us meet our most basic psychological needs.” The “pro-social” aspect of helping others can alleviate the isolation and numbness that is often felt in times of poor mental health. Moreover, the personal and group interactions facilitated through services like volunteering can encourage us to be more socially connected and create a deeper sense of belonging within our community and social group.
Volunteering Boosts your Mental Health
Volunteering has direct benefits to both mental and physical health. A 2018 study by BMC Public Health shows the cumulative benefits of volunteering in adults. Participants of the study that performed other-oriented volunteering — voluntary services of health, education, religious, human service, public or social benefit, or youth development — showed that this altruistic behavior was predictive of better mental health (an 8.54% increase), life-satisfaction (7.35%) , and social well-being (11.11%).
How to Start
Though there is some evidence that certain people hold a higher aptitude for giving behavior, kindness is something that can be learned. Post says that “it’s all about transmission, about passing the torch from one person to the next…” Leaning into this chain of giving can be surprisingly beneficial for you and your mental health, so don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and give back. Even small acts can make a difference in your life, and in someone else’s.
The Mental Health Organization stresses that a good way to help others is sharing your interests and skills in a way that is beneficial to others. For me — and I’m sure for many others in the organization — Bits of Good was the way that I felt I could best share my skills for a greater cause, and I can attest that since joining the organization, I’ve had an easier time keeping my mental health in check.
While there are strong correlations between improved mental health and acts of service, volunteering is by no means a replacement for professional medical help. If you have continued feelings of isolation, disconnection to others or yourself, or hopelessness, don’t hesitate to seek out the opinion of a professional. You’re not alone, and it’s okay to ask for the help you need.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273-TALK (8255)
Crisis Chat: CrisisChat.org
GT CARE Services: 404–894–3498
GT VOICE Advocate Info Line: 404–894–9000
Mental Health Organization UK: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week/kindness-matters-guide#:~:text=Evidence shows that helping others,%2C self-esteem and happiness.&text=There are so many ways,time or cost any money.
BMC Public Health Study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5504679/