Volunteering is a way to look after your mental health, gain vital skills for employment and support others in the community. (Image source: San José Public Library)

By Amelia Scott

For Summertown local Samantha Fearnley, life resembled contentment residing in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills with her parents, three younger siblings and beloved dog. Studying Graphic Design at Torrens University in Adelaide’s CBD, Fearnley found herself out and about at least three days a week, enjoying the bliss of her new adult life. Freshly 18 years of age, the world was at her feet; she was about to fulfil her creative passion. But her smile disguised her inner turmoil. No one was aware of the painful battle she was internally fighting every day.

Secretly battling depression, Fearnley found herself trapped. Social outings with friends became a dreaded stress, and university seemed impossible.

“I had a massive mental health crisis that brought me out of uni; it basically dropped everything out of existence,” she said.

Unable to study, work and cope with every day life, Fearnley, with the help of her family and close friends, mustered up the courage to seek professional help. Though with a new treatment plan put into action, she found she was isolated.

“I had really, really poor mental health at that time,” she said.

“I think my mum heard or saw something on the TV that Meals on Wheels were looking for volunteers in the Hills, and mum just kind of looked at me and said, ‘oh that would be perfect,’ to get me out of the house and into some form of routine.”

A 2011 workplace health report from Beyond Blue showed that mental ill-health presented significant barriers affecting participation in education and social gatherings, while also inhibiting an individual’s ability to perform in the workplace. The report further stated that these barriers were often specific to the disposition of the mental illness. The barriers stem from discrimination and stigma; how the perceptions and attitudes of employers, teachers and friends and family further affect the suffering individual’s wellbeing.

Additionally, the report states that workplaces, schools and universities most often do not consider the needs of employees suffering with ill-mental health, and therefore often do not provide the support these workers need to execute their tasks.

In October 2018, Fearnley became a volunteer at Meals on Wheels, donating her time and culinary skills to the organisation’s Stirling branch.

“Meals on Wheels is a not-for-profit, who in SA, feed South Australians, mostly the elderly South Australians or people on the NDIS who might not otherwise be fed themselves,” she explained.

“It’s all volunteer run. The kitchen staff are all volunteers, the drivers that deliver the meals are all volunteers.

“I’m mainly vegetable duty.

“The kitchen’s divided into four parts; there’s one person focusing on main meals, one person focusing on soups, one person focusing on desserts, and then there’s me, focusing on vegetables; starchy vegetables; potatoes, carrots, cabbage – basically whatever’s on the menu,” she laughed, “if there’s vegetables associated with it, that’s on me.”

With Fearnley’s role remaining in the kitchen, she doesn’t usually get to witness the positive impact Meals on Wheels brings to the lives of those using the service. Though she has been to people’s homes on occasion: “It definitely gives a better outlook on life and going with depression, things aren’t all bad in the world,” Fearnley said.

“Mum has done deliveries, and I’ve gone with her on a couple of occasions, and it’s really heart-warming to know that you’re helping someone who might not otherwise have a decent meal,” she said.

“It’s the ability to help feed somebody which is really fulfilling.

“Not just one person, but, at the Aldgate branch, we feed anywhere 40 and 50 people every weekday.

“It’s a relief to know you are helping others at a time when I felt like there was nothing I could do to help myself.”

In addition to freshly cooked, hot meals, Meals on Wheels also offers frozen meals which can be delivered as an extra item per request.

HealthDirect, an Australian Government health website, notes the social aspect of volunteering is also critical in keeping people’s mental health in check. This is because volunteering enables people to share their skills with others, while simultaneously acquiring new skills which is essential in boosting self-esteem and confidence.

Now aged 22, Fearnley enjoys volunteering with her team, Meals on Wheels, however she would love to work with some other volunteers her own age. There is a significant age gap between her and the other volunteers in her team, who are all men. “They’re good guys,” she said. “These guys are adults; they’ve got a stable career and hobbies. A couple of guys that are regulars, they go hiking like every other week.”

After months of volunteering at Meals on Wheels, Fearnley was offered paid employment at a popular restaurant in Norwood, where she took on kitchenhand duties. She believes her Meals on Wheels experience had “absolutely” contributed to her success in securing paid employment.

“It’s not just learning how to handle a knife; it’s teamwork, working in bulk orders, multitasking, a lot of dishwashing… [and] food prep which set me up for this job.”

Life finally became easier for Fearnley; she was happier, her job enabled her to become more self-sufficient, and she went back to university to study a Bachelor of Communication and Media. As the earlier months of 2020 COVID-19 pandemic sent the world into lockdown, the hospitality industry, among many others, was forced to close its doors.

Unfortunately for Fearnley and many others, this resulted in the termination of her employment and she was not elegible for JobKeeper.

“Losing my job was pretty devastating.

“I think I took a bit of a hit there, but I’ve had other things to focus on; uni, Meals on Wheels, so yeah, there have been other things that have kept me busy.”

The Youth Affairs Council of South Australia (YACSA) cited Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures, showing that from December 2019 until November 2020, the unemployment rate among young South Australians aged 15-24 has increased from 14.3 per cent – 15.5 per cent. South Australia’s youth unemployment rate is sitting at the fourth highest of all of Australia’s states and territories.

In Adelaide’s north-eastern suburbs, 25-year-old Stacey Jones* has also struggled with her mental health. She volunteers for Red Cross on Tuesdays as a sales assistant in the organisation’s Hampstead Gardens op-shop. Her duties involve customer service, point-of-sales and cleaning up the store in between customers. For Jones, volunteering is much more about gaining experience so she can enter the workforce, but she has found her volunteering role rewarding too.

“It has provided me with customer service skills, as well as skills relating to looking after a store,” she said.

“I find that volunteering helps me fulfill my passion of helping people, which, in turn positively affects my mental health.

“I provide my services to people from lower-socio economic backgrounds, who perhaps do not have the necessary resources to survive.

“I feel like I’m giving back to the community, and also to the Red Cross by selling these items through the op-shop which is an extremely satisfying feeling.”

The sociology graduate who is about to commence her Master of Social Work said volunteering has not only given her the satisfaction associated with helping people, but it has also provided her with the confidence to present her resume to various employers around her area.

Fearnley is adamant her efforts within Meals on Wheels are what initially helped her to gain employment and it is continuing to be an asset as she looks to secure a new job.

“I think it’d definitely be a selling point,” she said. “The job interviews that I do get, they ask about Meals on Wheels over my job in Norwood; they ask about Meals on Wheels over my previous job.”

Gaining employment in customer service roles has been difficult for Fearnley, because of the nature of her role at Meals on Wheels.

“I think a little bit of a downfall though is that I don’t deal with any direct customer facing. I’m just cooking,” she said. “They ask me what I do in the kitchen.”

The COVID-19 lockdown thankfully did not call for Meals on Wheels to close down, instead bringing in new measures to ensure volunteers’ safety so they could continue to aid South Australians in need. After a five-month hiatus from Meals on Wheels when she was in paid employment, Fearnley rejoined the organisation, once again preparing vegetables.

“We’re still helping people; we weren’t forced to close down… we managed to keep our branch open and got to keep feeding people fresh, hot meals every day,” she said.

The COVID-19 lockdowns actually saw a boost in numbers of volunteers putting their hands up, and more clients looking for support also.

“Most of the volunteer force is in the age group that the government recommended they isolate at home, so we lost a massive chunk of our volunteer force within a month,” Fearnley said.

“Meals on Wheels actually sent out for a volunteer call, and according to their records, they got three years’ worth of volunteer enquiries in the first three weeks, so it was a huge outpour of support.

“And so many people signed up as well because, you know, the older Australians, older South Aussies who’ve been asked to stay at home – that further limits their abilities to go shopping and feed themselves, so it’s been very busy.”

She encouraged others to consider looking at volunteering for Meals on Wheels, because it’s a rewarding experience, and “we might need it ourselves one day”.

For people who are already volunteering, or for those who are considering it, mental health organisation ReachOut have compiled a list of strategies for volunteers so they can continue to keep their mental health in check. Time management tops their list, followed by staying wary of your limits. Their third tip is knowing your rights and when to say no. Having fun and treating yourself are their final two tips. ReachOut acknowledge that spending time helping others, while rewarding can also be demanding on your own mental health. They suggest to prevent episodes of ill-mental health, volunteers need to take time out for themselves to relax and continue to pursue other hobbies.

If you, or anyone you know is struggling, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

*Name has been changed.

Originally published in The Junction.