Volunteering: an antidote to back to school stress

co-authored by Marc Kielburger

Across the country, students have started high school, and are facing life’s biggest questions: Where’s my locker? Do I know anyone in homeroom? What is that gray stuff on my cafeteria tray?

And they’re getting very stressed out.

With unfamiliar environments, heavier workloads, and social challenges, the first year of high school is rough. When 800 new high schoolers rated their feelings of anxiety on a scale of one to ten, one quarter said seven or more—indicating serious stress. Disturbingly, these anxiety-ridden youth were the most likely to cut classes, start smoking, or even engage in self harm, according to McGill University researcher Dr. Nancy Heath, who studied the students for three years.

Forget fidget spinners—there’s a better cure for high school worry: volunteering.

Parents are already struggling with over-scheduled kids, but the mental health benefits of this particular after-school activity are well established, and worth the effort.

“There’s clear evidence that doing something for others can help people manage stress,” says Heath.

The biggest benefit is connecting with new people. High school is a social minefield. As freshmen, grade school cliques break up. Teens struggling to find new friends can feel isolated and rejected. They need a back-up social scene outside the classroom, Heath suggests. “Volunteering and getting involved gives a sense of community and belonging.”

Team sports and some hobbies are social, but they can’t match the other benefits of volunteering.

Young volunteers connect with like-minded mentors, who are role models for more than just a skill, but for altruistic behavior.

Serving food in a soup kitchen or chatting with folks in a seniors’ home forces a teen to focus on the needs of others, instead of fretting over their own worries. It broadens their outlook beyond themselves, and promotes feelings of gratitude—which science has shown is good for your health.

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