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Student volunteering could have health benefits

Time spent volunteering on campus or in the community can impact students’ overall mental and emotional health, a 2015 study shows.

The study found that students who volunteered up to 10 hours each week were less likely to feel depressed than students who did not volunteer. The same study found that students who were employed for any amount of time were equally as likely to report depression as students who did not work, although employment did affect students feeling generally overwhelmed.

Badger Volunteers Director Stephanie Harrill runs the largest volunteer program at UW-Madison, coordinating more than 780 students volunteering across campus and the Madison area. She said her students see volunteering as an integral part of their education.

“Part of public education is giving students that civic engagement piece,” Harrill said. “I think a lot of students sign up for Badger Volunteers because they want to give a lot … but we hope they realize they’re getting a lot as well.”

The team of University of Indiana researchers behind the study could not conclude that volunteering caused a decrease in depression, but they did find strong evidence that volunteering and employment should be significant components of a students’ mental health plan.

Harrill said she’s seen students get a sense of relief from getting off campus for a few hours each week and devoting themselves to something productive that allows them to take their mind away from the pressures of college life.

“Students seem to like it because it’s like scheduling in a class … It’s something students don’t have to do, they want to do it,” Harrill said.

Alexandra Lindstrom, a Badger Volunteer, agrees. She said volunteering also gives her a way to explore careers and hobbies she wouldn’t come into contact with in academics alone.

“I find myself really immersed in whatever it is we’re doing,” Lindstrom said. “Plus it’s great to feel really appreciated when you’re helping people.”

That immersion could be key to a complete mental health plan, but volunteers have to be cautious not to overdo it. Students who participated in the study were more likely to report not getting a full night’s sleep more often if they volunteered for more than 10 hours weekly than those who did not volunteer.

Students can meet with a UHS wellness expert to talk about strategies to cope with stress and sleep more regularly by scheduling an appointment in MyUHS.