A Look at Mental Health & Service
“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secure for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” —Jane Addams
Jane Addams, a founder of the field of social work and Hull House in Chicago, a pioneer and relentless warrior for social justice, exemplifies the impact that service to others can have on our own mental health. As a young woman, following the death of her father in the summer of 1881, Addams experienced depression and suffered from a painful physical illness due to spinal tuberculosis (Bryan et. al, 2009). Addams was torn between her obligations to care for her widowed stepmother and her sense of obligation to serve society in a useful way. At the time it was considered self-indulgent for a young woman to pursue a career in lieu of caring for family members. During a tour of Europe from 1883-1885, Addams was struck by the magnitude of wealth disparity. She noted the stark contrast between the poverty in large European cities and the literary and artistic encounters available only to the wealthy. This experience “had a significant bearing on her later lifelong commitment to social justice,” (Bryan et. al, 2009, p. 216-217). Addams’ self-discovery was that her mental health was directly tied to her contribution to the world around her. In order to improve her own mental health, she had to use her privilege and resources to help others.
Many of us struggle with mental health issues, especially during this period of pandemic, where we are languishing, described by organizational psychologist Adam Grant as “a sense of stagnation and emptiness,” (Grant, 2021). Those with existing mental health diagnoses may find their symptoms intensifying, and those without prior symptoms may begin to notice changes in their mental health. As you search for ways to alleviate this uncomfortable sensation, I would encourage you to turn your thoughts, as Addams did, toward service to others.
It is often easy to become focused on our own well-being, particularly if we struggle with mental health issues. Some days just getting out of bed and simply managing our symptoms is the best we can do. Yet we often notice that little things throughout the day can make us feel better, more connected to others despite our differences. Holding a door open for someone, allowing someone to merge into traffic in front of you, or just smiling at a passerby can bring a warm feeling to your heart. Imagine how that feeling could grow exponentially if you turn your small acts of kindness into larger acts of solidarity and love.
Authors de Beer and Koster (2009) define solidarity as, “the willingness to help others…without immediately getting something in return,” (p. 15). We show solidarity to others in a multitude of ways, from spontaneous acts of kindness to intentional and organized efforts. Through displays of solidarity, we exhibit love for others, and in return, though we expect nothing, we receive much. “Generous love for all others is the main purpose of our life, the most enduring source of meaning and dignity, and the basis for all lasting self-esteem,” (Post, 2008, p. 2). Solidarity and love can combat the isolation often felt by those experiencing mental health issues, and bring about feelings of acceptance and peace.
The benefits of solidarity and love are not limited to those with mental health issues, but can also serve as a form of self-care. I recently arranged a volunteer experience through NeighborLink for some of the students and faculty from Marian University where I teach social work. We volunteered on the Friday before finals began, thinking it would be a nice break from studying for the students. I had recently been finding myself feeling overloaded with grading and academic year-end events, and my stress was evident to my loved ones through my irritability. But when I returned home from volunteering, my family noted the change in my mood as I excitedly showed them pictures of the work we had done, and shared the story of the homeowner who we had helped. The students and faculty also reached out to me afterward to thank me for arranging the opportunity, as they had thoroughly enjoyed it and found that it improved their mood at a stressful time of the year as well.
When the responsibilities of life intensify, or when symptoms of mental health issues seem overwhelming, it is comforting to know that acts of solidarity and love can bring about self-fulfillment, “an ongoing process of achieving our good, our well-being,” (Martin, 1994, p. 152). I can think of no better way to counter the sensation of languishing than service to others, to replace stagnation and emptiness with self-fulfillment. This is achieved not by living a sequestered life away from others but by mixing on the “common road where all must turn out for one another, and at least see the size of one another’s burdens,” (Addams, 1920). To help another person carry their burden can help us alleviate our own, and though treating mental health issues may also require additional steps, it is certainly a good start.
Addams, J. (1920). Democracy and social ethics. New York, Macmillan Company.
Bryan, M., Bair, B., and DeAngury, M., 2009. The selected papers of Jane Addams. University of Illinois Press.
De Beer, P., & Koster, F. (2009). Sticking together or falling apart?: Solidarity in an era of individualization and globalization. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Grant, A. (2021, April). There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: It’s called languishing. New York Times, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html?fbclid=IwAR1kaCb2NVyL5u1zJohSoafp7zs8MAHy06sZs8Da3bPN7yn6GQJLmfzX3WA
Post, S. (2008). Unlimited love: Altruism, compassion, and service. Templeton Press.