Our overall aim is to understand the role that informal volunteering can play in improving public mental health, reducing health inequalities, and strengthening social connectedness and community resilience among disadvantaged communities, and to formulate recommendations for implementation.
Previous research has found a link between volunteering and good mental health and wellbeing. This may be for several reasons, for example it can help people make friends, feel less lonely, improve people’s mood or feel better about themselves. Research has also found that people are more connected to each other in towns, villages and neighbourhoods where volunteering is common and that it can improve how they feel about where they live. This means informal volunteering can be beneficial for the whole community.
People can choose to volunteer in different ways. Many people volunteer by giving their unpaid time in a structured way to help an organisation (e.g., a church or a charity). Other people give their time in a less formal way. Informal volunteering is giving unpaid time to help friends and neighbours (e.g., picking up prescriptions, shopping, babysitting) informal volunteering tends to be unstructured and unplanned. People who live in working class or disadvantaged communities might say they are “helping out” or “being a good neighbour” rather than volunteering.
Informal volunteering represents an important community asset that could be further supported and mobilised to improve mental health and wellbeing especially in disadvantaged communities and during the cost-of-living crisis. In these communities, cultural or other barriers can prevent access to mental health treatments.
Design and methods
The project will consist of the following components:
- Realist literature review – a review will be undertaken of previously published evidence, focusing on understanding the mechanisms by which an intervention works
- Realist informed evaluation – this approach aims to unpick what works, for whom, how, and under what circumstances by considering the contextual factors and the potential processes/mechanisms that lead to intended and unintended outcomes. This will be broken down into three main phases:
- Develop initial theories about how informal volunteering supports the public mental health of adults in disadvantaged communities
- Test theories about how informal volunteering supports the public mental health of adults in disadvantaged communities
- Fine tune theories about how informal volunteering support public mental health of adults
To ensure meaningful public engagement, a peer researcher from the McPin Foundation will be embedded in the project from the onset. Our peer researcher will be a vital asset to the project and will perform a variety of roles throughout the life of the project. This will include helping to identify further public involvement and engagement partners and make contact with and help build relationships with case study communities. They will help develop the study protocol, participate in stakeholder discussions, co-facilitate workshops and contribute to the development and dissemination of outputs. The peer researcher will be trained, where necessary, by the study team.
McPin have been involved in the development of the proposal, time allocation and the role description of the embedded peer researcher. The peer researcher will bring their lens which will include experience of living with poor mental health and experience of working in disadvantaged communities.
We will work collaboratively with our public and practice partners to plan our study, co-produce our study outputs and implement a dissemination strategy in order to ensure that the project outputs impact upon public health practice to support the mental health and wellbeing of disadvantaged communities.