In discussing volunteer employment, it is first necessary to rid ourselves of the false distinction between being a volunteer and holding a "real" job. Volunteer work is real work, with real responsibilities, real opportunities, real rewards. The only real difference is one of salary. I don't wish to minimize this difference, because mental health consumers are one of the most economically disenfranchised of all populations in America. But I would like to suggest that the paycheck is not the only reason consumers long to be involved in the workplace.
Employment usually ranks high on surveys of what mental health consumers would like to see in their lives. The adjective meaningful is often attached to the word employment, indicating that what is desired is more than a menial job. I would suggest, however, that what gives work its meaning or value goes far beyond the nature of the work itself and has to do with certain less tangible qualities of involvement in the workplace that render life itself a richer, more meaningful experience.
Among these qualities are such things as the structuring of "empty" time, the elimination of isolation, the opportunity for human interaction, the chance to make new friends, increased self-esteem, and the experience of being engaged with the world in the common rhythm of work and relaxation that goes with having a regular job.
All of these things are obtainable through volunteer employment, without some of the stresses and rigidity that go with having a paying job. Volunteers can set their own schedules. While they should be accountable for the hours they commit to, psychologically it is less stressful to be committed out of your own freedom than out of a contractual agreement based on a paycheck.
Volunteers are never taken for granted, but always appreciated. This is often not the case in the world of the paycheck. Volunteers have more flexibility in adjusting to the ups and downs of their psychiatric disability. Because they are not under the pressure of the paycheck, they can always put their recovery and the maintenance of their psychiatric health first, where it belongs.
The family movement in mental health-NAMI-offers particularly attractive opportunities for consumers to enrich their lives through volunteer work. First, there is such a tremendous need in this arena for manpower to accomplish the great challenges that face all of us with psychiatric disabilities. To be needed is one of the central qualities of having meaning in one's life. Second, working in the family movement places the consumer/volunteer on the other side of the mental health equation. When I began volunteering at NAMI Ohio in the early 90s, I can recall the dramatic change I felt in my own recovery as I realized that now I was involved in finding solutions, in fighting stigma, in working for positive change instead of simply struggling with my illness. It was extremely empowering "to take the offensive" against my illness. Third, volunteering within the NAMI family is one way to be certain that the work environment one enters will understand and respect the realities of brain disorders and the limitations of one's particular disability. In the NAMI office where I work, I feel completely comfortable and open about my brain disorder, and I'm treated with acceptance and respect by my co-workers because they have been enlightened about the truth of psychiatric disorders. Sadly, this often cannot be said of the workforce at large. Fourth, being a volunteer in a NAMI office offers tremendous opportunities for education and gaining insight into one's own illness and into brain disorders in general, as well as into the mental health system. Research articles, newsletters, bulletins, magazines, advocacy alerts, legislative summaries-they all come through the office where I work, keeping me abreast of all the latest developments in treatment, service delivery, consumer issues, legal and legislative issues, and more.
Volunteering for NAMI or for any organization is a way to enrich one's recovery and obtain the dignity and self-respect associated with employment. As a volunteer, I found myself able to look people in the eye who would ask me if I were working or where I worked. This question, which for many years caused me acute embarrassment and shame, was easily and boldly answered once I realized that my "volunteer" job was as real as any job and that it was no one's business what my salary or lack thereof was.
Volunteer work is also an excellent way to begin exploring the transition back into the world of paid employment. The flexibility, freedom, and lower stress levels in volunteer employment render it an ideal way to experiment with forays into the world of the paycheck. The volunteer workplace can become a laboratory where one can explore workplace issues: learning to interact with co-workers and supervisors, learning the extent or limitations in one's stamina, practicing the maintenance of a regular schedule, learning to dress for the workplace, becoming comfortable with interacting with the public, and in general getting used to the dynamic of work and relaxation that goes with working on a regular basis.
Volunteer work is an excellent way to learn and develop new skills and abilities. In my years with NAMI Ohio I have become computer literate, adept at word-processing, and familiar with the techniques of grant-writing, public relations writing, and fund-raising. Also, being a volunteer is an excellent way to network and make connections that can one day lead to paid employment.
Becoming a volunteer was one of the most important decisions I ever made in my recovery. The skills and abilities I have gained have well equipped me for the world of paid employment. The respect and affection of my co-workers in the office where I volunteer has helped immeasurably in ending my sense of isolation. The self-confidence I have gained through interacting with diverse people in the workplace has strengthened my sense of self and my faith in my own ability to cope with others. The routine of work and relaxation that accompany going into an office every day has left me feeling a part of society again. That I am needed where I work and missed when I am unable to be there gives an important sense of meaning and purpose to my life.