It seems that the desire to help others is something that’s innate to the human soul. “Smile and the world smiles with you,” as they say. When we’ve experienced good fortune, we want to share it with the rest of the world. Too often, though, these good intentions get lost in an untrusting world simply because we don’t know where to start. For someone who thinks of helping others only in terms of giving away money, for instance, there are few truly good options.
If a person is willing to donate his time and effort instead, a whole galaxy of choices opens up. One is called voluntourism and is enormously expensive and ethically questionable. Another is to make a commitment of time and energy (without spending a cent), learning about the different types of counseling that exist, and offering assistance to those in need as a volunteer counselor.
Who Might Want to Become a Volunteer Counselor?
Many people who suffered from mental health issues in the past feel a duty or inclination to help others currently in the same position. In fact, a high degree of empathy is a trait often found among those who have recovered from illnesses such as depression or anxiety disorders.
A number of others have a desire to improve the world we live in and realize that their life experiences – as parents, prison inmates, soldiers, trauma survivors, or whatever else – make them more qualified than most to provide help to people in a particular situation. Some retired psychologists and therapists no longer desire to work formally, but still enjoy applying their skills for the benefit of others. Psychology students at all levels, as well as those interested in entering the counseling profession, also frequently use volunteer work as a way to gain experience and references.
Whatever a person’s background, experience, and education, numerous organizations are eager for more volunteer counselors. Where needed, training is usually provided free of charge, and volunteers can count on the support network an existing system provides, including drawing on the experience of veteran counselors. The only real requirements are the willingness to help others, a non-judgmental attitude, some time to spare and the necessary emotional resilience.
What Does the Work Involve?
The actual nature of volunteer counseling depends heavily on the organization involved. Some charities devote their work exclusively to certain groups, such as abused children, victims of crime or the elderly. Others may operate help lines open to anyone experiencing a difficult day, week or year, while certain online discussion boards and chat rooms allow anyone to pose a question or post a reply.
In some cases, volunteers will be required to commit to working a certain number of hours per week or per month. This is simply to ensure that the cost of the training they receive is spent effectively, and to make it easier for the counseling organization to plan their staffing requirements. In the case of pastoral (faith-based) counseling, certain religious criteria might also have to be met.
In some cases, a volunteer will be required to physically travel to a call center or other location to work or for mandatory training, which may comprise several dozen hours. Other groups offer one on one, face to face counseling, in which case a basic background check is usually required for all volunteer counselors. Due to the difficulty of checking identities and credentials online, some websites allow virtually anyone to register as a volunteer, although abusive or unprofessional behavior will not be allowed and may result in real-world consequences.
A large proportion of people suffering from mental illness or facing difficult challenges have no one to talk to. This may be because they are isolated from their family for some reason, ashamed to speak to someone they know, unable to afford a professional therapist’s fees or for any of a dozen other reasons.
While unable to offer the same level of care as a psychologist with a master’s degree, a person who spends an hour or so per week answering questions on a website devoted to providing those suffering from depression, relationship issues or general mental strain can do a world of good to people they will never meet. Chances are, whatever life experience or formal counseling training you possess, someone, somewhere in the world is in need of help you can provide. The pay is poor, but the rewards are great.