How volunteering helped my mental health

It can be a daunting experience to volunteer for a cause for the first time, especially if you experience mental health problems. Anna tells us how volunteering at her local park run helped her to build confidence and brought a sense of connection and belonging into her life during recovery from an eating disorder.


At first, I felt awkward. Awkward, and over-dressed. It was unseasonably cold, I’d told myself when leaving the house earlier that morning. However, I had to admit that my down jacket and knitted scarf looked slightly ridiculous when compared to the army of t-shirt-clad runners currently taking over the local park. To top it off, the neon pink hi-vis jacket marking me as an official volunteer was laughably large, not meant for a knock-kneed scrawny girl like me. I’d never felt more out of place in my life.

It was 09:13am on a Saturday morning. Worldwide, countless individuals were running, jogging or walking 5 km around their local park as part as part of parkrun, a weekly community event that aims to encourage inclusiveness and wellbeing. My dad was an enthusiastic participant; I wasn’t. But after weeks of ignoring his cajoling, I eventually agreed to accompany him there and take part not as a runner, but as a volunteer. At the very least, I could say that I’d tried it. Now, I waited reluctantly in my designated spot beside a makeshift funnel adorned with brightly-coloured bunting. A box of finish tokens, neatly sorted into piles of twenty, stood at my feet. My job was simple: hand out a token to each runner as they crossed the line. I began to feel nervous.

"With depression and anxiety; leaving the house is a struggle at the best of times and I could still feel my heart pounding."

– Anna

My main struggle is with a long-standing eating disorder, and I’ve previously had an unhealthy and obsessive relationship with exercise. Maybe running had once been fun, at some point during early childhood, but it had quickly become all about performance – running further, faster, harder. I wasn’t currently in a position in my recovery where I was able to run, but I knew that decision was best. However, watching the participants make their way around the park whilst I stood by was still hard to deal with.

I checked my watch. 09:15am. The first runner would be finishing soon; my anxiety levels spiked. I was meant to be ‘friendly’ as I gave out the tokens, but what did that mean? Should I congratulate the runners? Give them high-fives? What if they had headphones on – could they hear me? What if the walkers thought I was making fun of them, jeering at their slower pace? My blood rushed even faster, and I wished I had just stayed at home.

Before I knew it, the furious pounding of trainers on tarmac and the answering cheers of my fellow volunteers interrupted my worrying. The first runner sprinted towards me in a blur, sweat dripping from his forehead as he crossed the line. ‘Amazing finish!’ called out the woman manning the stopwatch. I agreed – I had to admit that the runner’s final push had been spectacular. I inhaled deeply. ‘Friendly’… I knew I should say something as I gave him is token. ‘G-g-great job?’ I offered, wincing at my fumbling hands. The runner didn’t seem to mind, but instead flashed a grateful thumbs up, chest heaving, just as the second finisher crossed the line. ‘Thanks for volunteering,’ he wheezed. His kind words seemed to warm that bleak, empty place inside me caused by my mental health problems. I mumbled back an answer, blushing profusely: ‘Uh – that’s OK. Well done?’

And so it continued, until the final walker stepped over the line. I had thought I would feel out of place, counting down the minutes until I could leave. But as my token pile dwindled, I found myself wishing it wouldn’t end. The participants were all so appreciative of the volunteers; each one passed by with a grateful smile, a cheery ‘have a good day!’ or ‘thanks for helping out!’. My replies grew more confident as the minutes went by and I felt more able to smile and congratulate each runner individually. Their gratitude was genuine – they were truly thankful for the volunteers like me who meant their weekly run could go ahead. One guy even greeted me by name; it turned out he lived a few doors down. After almost two months at my new house, I finally met a neighbour.

The event also helped change my view of running. I never imagined being able to look past that unhealthy obsession with performance. But watching the participants showed me that there was much more to running than speed and time. Many runners didn’t even check their times as they crossed the line. I realised what I saw: people running not out of a sense of obligation or need to achieve, but because they genuinely enjoyed it. This weekly run was simply an opportunity to get outside and get together with the rest of the community. I felt part of something friendly, inclusive, joyful. And, though the me that had turned up 90 minutes earlier would never have believed it, I was enjoying myself too.

That was several months ago. Since then, I’ve volunteered each Saturday, trying out jobs from timekeeper to barcode scanner. But no matter the role I play, I can genuinely say that those 1.5 hours in a pink hi-vis are the highlight of my week. I leave the park each time with a spring in my step that wasn’t there before.

"Volunteering has given me a sense of connection and belonging. It is a regular activity that gets me out of the house and socialising, helping me tackle my depression and anxiety."

– Anna

Knowing that I can talk to complete strangers after their run gives me the confidence to face the cashier at supermarket checkouts or make a medical appointment over the phone. Perhaps most amazingly, this volunteering has completely changed how I view running. Times and positions aren’t important – here, running is a way of getting together with others. I now feel motivated to get to a place in recovery where I can join them in a healthy, happy way, if I want to. But who knows? I might just stick with volunteering.

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