Peter Shaw: How Volunteering Changed My Life

Peter expands on his experiences of volunteering within the mental health community and the many benefits it has brought him.

Peter presenting at an event

I’ve written previously about how my experiences of volunteering, particularly with the Time to Change campaign, have helped me to take back control of my story. Inspired by Volunteers’ Week, I wanted to expand further on how joining the movement in 2016 as a Young Champion has changed my life and helped me to grow in confidence.

Part of the Time to Change message is that having a mental illness is ok and the mental health discrimination still prevalent in our society is not. They take a direct approach in targeting schools and organisations that work with children to help inform the next generation about mental health and illness. They educate on its importance and how to support people who are struggling mentally. Society needs to recognise how crucial knowledge and open dialogue is when it comes to mental health so that when people suffer from a mental illness they know it’s ok to be mentally unwell and where to turn for support.

It’s difficult to put into words how important self-esteem and confidence are when you have a mental illness. I spent years of my life doubting myself. I wasted a lot of my thoughts and energy on trying to read people’s minds and imagine what they thought of me. I isolated myself from friends, work and even volunteering because I felt like a failure who everyone hated. Why bother fighting it? When I tried pushing myself, anxiety caused me physical pain that I couldn’t understand or handle, so I gave up. It was only when I met people similar to me and learned that anxiety and depression were more common than I thought that I believed they wouldn’t stop me from succeeding in life. I felt like I was managing better.

Since then, I’ve travelled around the country to represent Time to Change at events and had the confidence to stand up in front of audiences and talk about my experience with mental illness. I started writing a blog about my experiences and became a Peer Leader to the new Young Champions at Time to Change. This latter role in particular has helped me to see how much of a difference knowledge and information makes – the new cohort are so hard-working in challenging stigma, going into schools and educating younger generations that mental illness is ok and not something to be avoided or dismissed.

Being part of the movement and using my story of anxiety and depression has allowed me to connect with others and gain a greater understanding of myself. It has helped me to see that I am worthy of support and these two illnesses don’t make me any less of a person. It’s taught me that I need to treat my illnesses properly and not try to ignore them; but also not reject or feel ashamed of them. Instead, I can draw on my experiences to teach younger generations the importance of looking after their own health and help teachers understand the type of support I would have benefitted from at school.

Having spent two years as a Young Champion with Time to Change before progressing to the roles of Adult Champion and Peer Leader, I can see clearly how much of a difference volunteering for the organisation has made to me. Personally, socially and professionally, this continuing experience has made me into a person who is more confident, has higher self-esteem and sees the value in looking after their health.

My work with Time to Change has encouraged me to explore more opportunities for growth while ensuring I take enough time for self-care. I’ve joined the amazing Sheffield Flourish, sharing stories and learning more about local opportunities to help those with a mental illness. I’ve joined an online mental health charity that strives to support those with a mental illness who feel alone. I’ve also started an internship with a university that has given me my first taste of paid work. The confidence to approach these opportunities and grow as a person is something I put down to volunteering.

While volunteering I have met people I can safely call friends for life. I’ve had many amazing opportunities to speak in front of audiences, talk about my mental health history and shape the future of Time to Change’s work. This has enhanced my CV while out of work, made me feel better about my employment prospects and shown employers that I am worth their selection.

If you are interested in volunteering and want to know more, my advice would be to look at opportunities in areas you’re interested in. For me it was mental health because of my lived experience, but for you it could be related to the environment or animals or sport – whatever you’re interested in. Volunteering in something you are passionate about will help you get more out of it. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself as a volunteer – any good organisation will encourage you to look after yourself as well as others so you don’t overstretch yourself. Volunteering has been so worthwhile to me, not just for the employability benefits but also the positive social and health effects. I thoroughly believe you’ll be able to reap the rewards of a volunteering experience too.

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