Help Yourself by Helping Others

I had been planning to refer a young adult to a transitional college support program in Texas when Hurricane Harvey threw a wrench into my plans. Instead of placing a call to initiate the referral, I had to place a call to find out if the program was underwater. Thankfully the program sustained minimal damage and was up and running. As I talked to my contact at the program, she explained that due to the magnitude of damage and destruction in the area, they were planning to cancel their regular therapeutic programming for the next week and were instead enlisting their program participants in extensive community service and cleanup throughout the area. While we have always liked this particular program, I hung up the phone feeling better about it than ever. I liked the fact that the program was empowering its young people to respond to a major humanitarian crisis and that in spite of the fact that many of these young people had serious and compelling personal issues, they were urging them to look beyond themselves and consider the needs of others.

In fact, it turns out there is compelling research which backs up the idea that helping others is an important component of wellness. I recently attended the Summit for Clinical Excellence’s conference on Emerging Young Adults in Denver, CO, and speaker after speaker connected the declining mental health of Gen Z’s and Millennials to a generational narcissism fueled among other things by helicopter parents and Snapchat selfies. While it is not surprising that service to others would be beneficial in terms of countering a focus on self, several spoke of benefits well beyond that and connected service to others as a way of building empathy, developing resilience, and increasing happiness. Dave Verhaagan, Ph.D., an expert on young adults, referenced Robert Brooks’ work on resilience and his findings that making positive contributions and focusing on the well being of others is a key component in the establishment of personal resilience and that those who remain focused on themselves and their own needs show fewer signs of “emotional muscle” and “an ability to bounce back.” On a similar note, Verhaagen spoke of Bill Hanlon’s research on happiness and his finding that having a sense of purpose and making beneficial contributions to others are key factors connected to happiness.

In visiting and evaluating schools and programs, I have typically put on my clinical and educator hats and zeroed in on the therapeutic and educational offerings available. While mention of community service has often been made, I haven’t necessarily paid close attention to the specifics or prioritized it as an important consideration. Going forward, I am going to think of service as a vital and integral part of a young person’s treatment and value it as an important part of the road to recovery!

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