Do you involve your service users as volunteers?   When we ask this question, the answer tends to vary from “yes, very much so” through to “well I think we could do more to involve service users”.

At Swindon Mind the starting point for volunteering was to help meet their clients’ support needs through involving clients   as volunteers. Elaine Woulfe runs the volunteer programme, and explains how volunteers are involved.

Based at a centre in Swindon, the organisation aims to provide accessible services to local people experiencing emotional distress.  Services include information, advocacy, individual and group support.  It also aims to reduce stigma and discrimination and to raise awareness of mental health issues, for example through giving talks to other groups in the community.

Volunteering Supports Recovery

When volunteering was first introduced at Swindon Mind, it was offered as one option in an individual service user’s recovery plan.  At a suitable point in their recovery, service users are encouraged to volunteer to help staff with the Drop-in or at one of the Activities sessions at the Centre.  The aim is to build their self-esteem and confidence, as well as offer an opportunity to give something back.

There are currently eight people who include active volunteering as part of their recovery plan.  Volunteers are provided with badges, and most people wear these with pride.  It also means that it’s clear to other service users when somebody is there in the volunteering role.

For some service users volunteering is an end in itself.  For others it has provided a springboard to other activities which support their recovery.  One person, after volunteering within the Centre for 10 years,  felt she was confident enough to volunteer as a receptionist for another voluntary organisation, and she has also gone on to lead health walks for her local community.  Another volunteer has had the confidence to return to studying at college.

External Volunteers Promote Social Inclusion

Following the success of internal volunteering, the organisation started to think about involving external volunteers.  The impetus here was to involve the local community, break down barriers and the stigma attached to mental health, and thus promote social inclusion.  To achieve this, Elaine aims to make the volunteering as accessible and undemanding as possible.  For example, for people in full-time employment there is the option to help with evening activities. As with the internal volunteers, Elaine wants everyone to enjoy the experience, and not feel pressurised.

If volunteers can’t commit to a regular time, that’s OK as they are not relied on.  They are there as a genuine bonus, to provide another pair of hands and more importantly to interact with the service users.  At the moment, there are eight active volunteers from the local community.

One clear outcome is that the community volunteers have developed a greater understanding of mental health issues and their impact.  They have been able to take this awareness out to their family and the wider community.  For example, family members of one of the volunteers recently helped with a fund-raising event.

Volunteers provide variety

So the Centre can continue to function without the support of the volunteers, there are always one or two paid staff at the Drop-in or leading activities.  But volunteers do add character and flavour, and an opportunity for service users to develop relationships with members of the wider community.  Service users tell Elaine that they enjoy having different people to talk to.

Why do you Involve Volunteers?

It may be worth re-visiting the aims of your volunteering programme from time to time, to assess how closely volunteering is integrated within your organisation’s aims and objectives.

Is there more potential for involving your service uses as volunteers in your organisation?

What do you think?