Being of service to others

How Volunteering Can Boost Teen Mental Health in Tempe

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“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” —Mahatma Gandhi

Teens are on a journey to find themselves, but they often venture onto paths that lead to confusion and self-doubt. They are in an exciting developmental stage where their thinking becomes more abstract. They are better able to consider multiple possible solutions to problems and think through moral and ethical dilemmas. But with this expanded thinking can come increased worry over whether they are doing the right thing and how they are perceived by others. If such worries become persistent or significantly impact their mood and behavior, they can even contribute to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Given the ongoing teen mental health crisis, it is worthwhile for teens and their families to examine how they can disrupt negative thinking patterns to improve their sense of well-being. One important path to consider is volunteering.

The connection between community service and mental health

Engaging in service offers several positive health outcomes for teens. Volunteering releases dopamine, a reward chemical in the brain that reduces stress and promotes feelings of relaxation. Recent research suggests that youth who regularly volunteer are less likely to have behavioral issues and anxiety symptoms. Volunteering during adolescence is also associated with fewer risky behaviors and depressive symptoms in adulthood, suggesting that community service also has long-term health benefits. Other possible benefits include the following:

  • Sense of purpose. Volunteering addresses teens’ need to feel that their lives are meaningful. As they do work valuable to their communities (whether local or global), they see how their contributions make a difference in the lives of others.
  • New life skills. Community service offers opportunities to develop organization, communication, and technical skills. Whether compiling the stories of elderly residents in a nursing home or running a clothing drive for a domestic violence shelter, volunteering teens acquire new knowledge and experience that will enhance their success in other pursuits, such as school and future jobs.
  • Healthy connections. By participating regularly in a service that interests them, teens are exposed to others with similar values. This can improve their social interactions, reduce loneliness, and foster healthy relationships that are grounded in a positive, shared activity.
  • Increased empathy. Teens are often overwhelmed by their own challenges, and volunteering can help shift their perspective by allowing them to see how others live. By expanding their worldview through service, teens can reduce stress and maintain a more balanced view of their struggles.
  • Sense of empowerment. When teens see that the work they have done has positively impacted a person or community, they feel empowered to continue working toward positive change in themselves and their environment. Volunteering is a unique experience in that it builds teens’ self-confidence while shifting their focus outward.

Volunteer opportunities for teens in Tempe, Arizona

East Valley teens need not look far for local service opportunities. Organizations in Tempe and its surrounding cities welcome volunteers to help meet a variety of needs, from distributing food bank boxes to maintaining community gardens. Here are just a few options for teens to explore:

  • Feed My Starving Children (FMSC). Youth and families help pack nutritious meals that are sent to poverty-impacted areas worldwide. Volunteers can sign up for a two-hour packing slot Monday through Saturday at the organization’s permanent Mesa warehouse.
  • City of Tempe Volunteer Program. Tempe’s official website includes a volunteer hub with up-to-date opportunities for all ages. A special summer volunteer program for middle and high school youth allows teens to gain new skills while assisting with kids camps and library classes.
  • Keep Tempe Beautiful. Teens can participate in monthly park cleanups to reduce litter, improve recycling, and beautify their neighborhoods. This nonprofit also hosts educational events related to sustainability and desert gardening.
  • This database lists service opportunities based on location. Teens can enter their city or zip code to find upcoming events posted by local organizations. Opportunities include calling Bingo games at nursing homes, sorting clothes at resource centers, and practicing English with refugees who have settled in Arizona.

Creating space for acts of service

While the benefits of volunteering are clear, teens can find it difficult to step beyond their comfort zones to engage meaningfully in acts of service. They may feel their schedules are already too demanding, or they may need encouragement to get started. Here are a few strategies to overcome these barriers:

  • Start small. For those with busy schedules, traveling to complete volunteer work might seem impossible. In such cases, consider projects that can be completed during spare time at home, such as gathering supplies to make hygiene or heat survival kits for those experiencing homelessness or crocheting baby hats to donate to a local hospital. 
  • Don’t overcommit. Some organizations prefer long-term volunteers who can build ongoing relationships with the communities they serve. Busy teens should avoid committing to a schedule that is unsustainable, as this can place more stress on them over time.
  • Find the right fit. Teens have varied interests and aptitudes and are more inclined to engage in service that suits their strengths. A reserved introvert may be terrified at the thought of leading kids in a summer day camp but could thrive sorting clothing donations for a nonprofit thrift store. 
  • Utilize school clubs. Many middle and high schools offer service-based clubs for students. These clubs typically host fundraisers or drives throughout the school year and encourage students to participate in volunteer events, where they often work alongside friends.

As their internal world continues to expand, teens can benefit from an emotional anchor to keep them grounded. While dwelling on their perceived flaws contributes to poor mental health, engaging in acts of service provides opportunities to give back while reducing stress and improving self-esteem.

Volunteering has many benefits, but it may be insufficient to help teens overcome more complex mental health issues. Therapy services like those offered in Modern Recovery’s teen therapy program provide additional support for teens who need more comprehensive care. This program’s highly skilled therapists help youth forge healthier, more productive lives. For teens who struggle to incorporate acts of service into their routines due to mental health challenges, therapy offers tools—such as effective coping skills—and strategies for putting such skills into action.