Study shows volunteering improves mental health in veterans

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Participants showed lower rates of PTSD and depression following 6 month volunteer program

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Ian Smith served eight years in the Army and deployed twice to Iraq. He credits his volunteering for overcoming his struggles with PTSD and starting a new life.

Ian Smith served eight years in the Army and deployed to Iraq twice before exiting the service in the early part of 2009. He got by working three jobs while attending school in a suburb of Nashville, Tenn. He lived on his couch, often with a pistol in hand, rarely slept and relied heavily on alcohol. Smith even seriously contemplated suicide, having pressed the gun to his head on more than one occasion.

All that changed when he began to invest himself in volunteer work.

“It was the single most important course correction in my life,” Ian said. “The entire trajectory of my personal and professional life changed and accelerated faster than I could have ever imagined. I feel that volunteering is the most self-rewarding thing that I have ever done. Serving a purpose greater than myself was the best medicine for me.”

Ian excelled in his volunteer work and eventually earned an internship under former first lady Michelle Obama, working for her Joining Forces Campaign geared toward helping veterans.

Today, Ian works for the VA and is a part of their Quality Enhancement Research Initiative (QUERI), where the goal is to improve the health and care of veterans.

A recent study from Saint Louis University found a possible correlation between volunteer work and improvements in mental health, suggesting volunteering yields positive advancements in mental health and social productivity.

Researchers studied 346 post-9/11 veterans who completed a 20-hour weekly volunteer program between 2011 and 2014.

Before volunteering, more than 50 percent of participants said they had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and 23.5 percent reported symptoms of depression. By the program’s completion, only 43 percent showed signs of PTSD and just 15 percent still had signs of depression.

“All veterans in the service program showed improvements in overall health, mental health and social functioning,” said Monica Matthieu, lead researcher and Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at Saint Louis University.

Matthieu said at first she was skeptical that volunteering could decrease symptoms of PTSD, but the data is beginning to sway her.

For Tim Smith, an Iraq War veteran, transitioning out of the Army in 2007 was proving difficult. He hadn’t found a job in six months and with each passing day reintegration into civilian life was becoming more challenging. He lost eight friends while deployed to Iraq in 2004, and his PTSD symptoms were becoming worse with so much time on his hands. Then he started to volunteer and the experience changed his life.

ian_smith-1“It was a huge factor in where I am at now,” said Tim. “I was a pretty private person, but I’ve opened up and it has opened a lot of doors for me. It was an opportunity to work and be a part of a team again.”

Today, Tim has what some would call the American dream — he owns his own cleaning business and employs 43 veterans. Tim is married with two small boys, and his wife, Terri, credits his volunteering with his ability to start his own business.

“He just seemed defeated, but once he started volunteering he got that twinkle in his eye again,” Terri said. “He was making a difference again in other people’s lives, and it was a stepping-stone to providing for his family. He started the cleaning company as a result of volunteering.”

Researchers from the Saint Louis study say veterans may benefit from a volunteer work during their transition back to civilian life.

“Ultimately, we need more options for healing to be inclusive for all who experience trauma, not a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Matthieu, “Each individual has to be empowered to find their own path to healing and recovery.”

For Ian Smith, the benefits are clear and should be shared among veterans.

“In every town in America there is a veteran who wants to give back to others in a positive way,” said Smith. “Ask them to serve, include them in your community, and allow them to share their unique talents and strengths. Veterans have stepped forward to serve this great country for generations, so let’s encourage them to continue to serve here at home.”

To get involved and volunteer for veterans or to receive assistance please visit DAV’s new site www.volunteerforveterans.org . Veterans, caregivers and volunteers can create a profile and enter an opportunity for assistance, or volunteer. Be sure to check back often, as the site will update continuously with new information and could take time to spread to less-populated areas and suburbs.

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