Serving Others – Good Medicine for Mental Health
Mental health has become a hot topic these days. The pandemic accelerated already existing mental health issues raising them to a new, higher level. This is especially true for young people ages 14 to 24. Springtide Research, an auxiliary of Fuller Institute in California, just released their new study on Young People and Mental Health. It says, “Gen Z is in the middle of the biggest mental health crisis ever.” Half of the American youth or more say they are stressed or depressed and 61 percent of them say the adults in their life don’t know it.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness says:
- 1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness in some form each year
- 1 in 6 youth (ages 6-17) experience a mental health disorder
- 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14; 75% by age 24
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between 10 and 14
These stats are scary! Like it or not, way too many people are in a bad place emotionally. To think where all this might lead . . ., well, I don’t want to go there.
Medicine for Emotional Pain
I can remember the time when an astounding number of Americans took some sort of anxiety-reducing drug. Perhaps that has changed, but given the reality that just as many people struggle with anxiety and/or depression as ever, I doubt it. Appropriately prescribed and carefully taken drugs can help but we are not going to overcome emotional stress altogether with pills from a bottle.
A better medicine is serving others. It’s a proven fact that serving others mitigates stress and depression. It is less costly and less risky. My Dad used to say, “It’s good for you and helps you too, besides the benefit you get from it.” In today’s language: It’s all good.
I’ve shared this in prior blogs, but it bears repeating, especially in light of the current mental health crisis. Our brains are hardwired to respond favorably to serving others. The feel-good hormones oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin are released when we serve others. They are responsible for what we call a “helper’s high.” At the same time cortisol, the hormone released when we feel stressed, is reduced. Conclusion: serving others is in fact good, natural, and effective medicine for mental health issues.
One of the reasons serving others is good medicine for mental health is that it strengthens our social relationships. That works in two directions—those with whom we serve and those we serve. In the almost three decades that I have been engaged with helping people minister to people in need, one of the most consistent comments I’ve heard is how such serving builds stronger relationships with fellow volunteers.
The best example is a wheelchair ramp crew that has built a ramp every week for about 10 years!! Clearly, they love building ramps and serving the people who need them, but what they really love is being together and working together. These men plan their week around their weekly service project . . ., then enjoy lunch together . . . every week!
When serving others becomes an ongoing ministry to the same people, positive relationships take place. One of my all-time favorite stories is about my friend Joel Singletary in Sumter, SC, who became best friends with Roosevelt Williams, the recipient of an Inasmuch project. After Joel and his church friends restored some quality to Rosey’s life, he and Rosey developed a deep friendship including Rosey having meals at the Singletarys’ home and other social interactions. A video spotlighting this relationship can be seen here.
Serving others builds a strong sense of purpose
Another reason serving others is good medicine for mental health issues is how it gives people a sense of purpose in their life. Purpose is a driver for good mental health. It powers us through difficult times. It sustains us when troubles exert their downward pull on us.
In the Compassionaries book, I tell the story for which there is not enough space here to tell in its entirety, but I can summarize it. It’s about a former Marine who, when he was discharged from active duty, struggled mightily to adjust to civilian life. He fought suicidal tendencies. But when he became involved in serving others in disaster relief his former Marine friend organized, he found a sense of purpose that revitalized him for a time.
In one salient conversation between these two former Marines, the organizer of disaster relief asked his troubled friend what made him feel happy. “I’ll tell you what it is,” the friend answered. “It’s purpose. That’s all it is. When I’m [serving others], I have purpose, just like in the Marines. When I look in the mirror, I’m proud of the person looking back at me.”
I rest my case—serving others is good medicine for mental health. To be honest, serving others may not eliminate the need for pill-form medicine for anxiety or depression altogether but for sure, it can help stabilize and restore sufferers from mental health issues.
Let me know what you think
Do you have a story of someone who has experienced the mental health benefits of serving others? If so, please share it. I love good stories.
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