Exploring the benefits and challenges of volunteering: Participatory action research with people with lived experience of mental illness
Volunteering is associated with a range of health and employability benefits. However, there is limited evidence of the collective experience of volunteering for people recovering from mental illness. This thesis presents a participatory action research project in collaboration with a group of ten working age adults comprising four men and six women of white British ethnicity, predominantly Scottish and all living in the same Scottish city. All had lived experience of mental illness; many had significant experience of volunteering and all were actively engaged at the time of the research in unpaid volunteering in the community through personal choice as part of their recovery journey. The aim of the project was to hear about the benefits and challenges of volunteering including the positives and negatives of sociopolitical and welfare systems that support people with lived experience of mental illness to volunteer, with a view to producing something through action that would be of benefit to the group and/or the wider community. Participants took part in a preliminary interview and attended a series of five participatory action research groups. Thematic data analysis of the interviews was carried out by the researcher. Data generation and analysis of the PAR groups was combined and followed Freire’s (1970, p. 80; p. 104) process of “problem posing” and “conscientization” or critical consciousness raising where participants by asking critical questions about their situation recognised the potential for transformation. Data analysis of the PAR groups was collaborative, iterative, cumulative and coconstructed with themes revisited and revised by participants. Findings revealed factors that supported and hindered a positive volunteering experience including challenges from the socio-political impact of welfare reform. Participants produced a briefing paper to inform newly devolved powers supporting the Social Security (Scotland) Bill to support change at policy level and resolve the problem of mandatory volunteering in Scotland. This project has generated a new understanding of the experience of volunteering for people with lived experience of mental illness proposing an original theory of five conditions for successful volunteering that are necessary to support recovery namely: readiness and support to volunteer; synergy between volunteer and experience to ensure volunteering is meaningful; flexibility to stay well; opportunity to meet needs for identity and connectedness; and opportunity for influence and activism. Findings have also highlighted the negative effects of neoliberal welfare policies on the experience of volunteering for out-of-work disabled welfare recipients; demonstrated how PAR contributes to positive socio-political change with findings supporting Scottish Government policy development; and exposed how at a practice level the hegemony of paid work dominating occupational therapy vocational services limits an understanding of volunteering to one viewed solely through a work lens, with limited critique.