Tips on Volunteering When You Have Chronic Pain and/or Mental Illness

My last post talked about how I’m improving my confidence by deciding to get out into the world once more, starting with volunteering. I thought I’d share with you some tips of what I’ve learned so far when volunteering with chronics and mental illness.

Yes. You CAN do this.
That’s the first thing I need to say. This still happens to me today: every single voice telling me I can’t. In the initial stages of the unknown, I do get flight anxiety response. Well, I challenge my thoughts and yours. Prove yourself wrong. Even if it doesn’t go as planned, sit down and figure out what went wrong. Did I do too much? Was I already too stressed out? Was this the right fit for me? Learning from the experience helps make the next one better.


Treat it like you would a job.
Show up 5-10 minutes before your scheduled time. Wear what they asked you to wear. Stay off your phone. Give as much notice as you can if you have to bail. I can think of a butt load more examples, but I hope you get the gist. It’s these little things that I’ve noticed in my past experience with volunteering that keep you at the top of the list of the organizer’s mind as dependable. There’s too many people who volunteer and don’t take what they’re doing very seriously. This isn’t to say the rigidity of paid employment applies, yet it’s important to remember you can use this experience (and the coordinators as references) on your résumé. Even if employment isn’t in the foreseeable future, you have something to look back on to prove to your illness you did that.

Know your limitations, but do try to challenge yourself.
I find honesty is the best policy when starting out your volunteering path. Be forthcoming about your limitations caused by your condition from the start. Remember: you don’t have to disclose the full story, and you don’t owe them explanation. For example, I can’t lift super heavy without risk of hurting myself. I’m also working on my agoraphobia. When I apply to volunteer, a hard no is heavy lifting, but I can organize chairs if someone else sets up the tables. Where I deem lack of exits: I state way in advance that I may have to leave half-way through/need plenty of breaks away from the stimuli. I’ve yet to volunteer anywhere in which the coordinator doesn’t want to work with you.

Expect a flare/symptoms the following day that could hang around.
From first time to veteran volunteering, this has happened to me each time. It may not happen, but bet on something due to a change in routine. Things as little as sitting in a different chair for a few hours has caused irritation where I have my pain, and I’ve gone through some flashbacks being in venues from my c-PTSD. The best thing here is to track what happened, what caused it, and switch up the next time you try. For mental illness, it’s a great opportunity to bring this to your therapist or work out on your own. Triggers are sneaky little buggers that you don’t know will happen until they do. Don’t let these things deter you from continuing/trying again. The more you expose, the more you heal.

No, you won’t get along with everyone.
It happens in all parts of life: we end up working alongside someone that you can’t seem to find common ground. The best thing here is to stick to the task at hand and limit interaction. Reflect: is it inappropriate behaviour? Or is it something triggering inside? If it’s the first, mention it to the coordinator as soon as possible. The second, ask not to be place with similar persons in the future, and work on that trigger. If it’s completely unbearable, ask the volunteer coordinator if there’s something else you can do that’s not with said person. You can also tell the coordinator that for the first few tasks, you’d rather work alone for the first few times to build up enough confidence to work with others.

There’s no better place to practice social skills. Stick with open ended questions and stay on general topics. Try your best to avoid talking about your illnesses if you’re only doing the activity once, or it’s the first few weeks. It doesn’t mean you can’t disclose, but I have experienced others using the situation for emotional dumping/venting and being treated differently once I’ve said something (by fellow volunteers). This can bring everyone down, and unsure how to respond without offending. If you’re stuck for ideas, talk about the organization, the event itself, the task you’re doing, why you chose to volunteer there etc. If someone’s staying silent, don’t force them to talk. Do let them know that they’re a part of this mini-community as they too may be struggling with their own issues. Checking in from time to time and being encouraging in regards to what they’re doing helps both persons.

We’re in this together!

Have any volunteering tips? Let me know down in the comments!

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