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Service, Volunteering and Substance Abuse | History Repeats Itself


For many of us, volunteering is something that we’ve been told to do to be considered a good person. Parents, peers, schools, and employers encourage us to volunteer because there are people less fortunate than us. You could broadly define this perception of volunteering as the ‘haves’ helping the ‘have nots.’ People who live near trees plant trees for people who don’t.  People who can read tutor children who cannot. Or people who have winter coats donate coats to people who are cold.

Heading Back in Time

America has a long history of encouraging its people to give their time to others. Starting with George Washington, almost every president has acknowledged the importance of citizens volunteering their time and talents to the betterment of the country. Franklin Delano Roosevelt put the call to service into action with the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). The initiative, a part of his ‘Alphabet Agencies’, had low income individuals planting trees and teaching about soil conservation.

This initiative encouraged other presidents to do the same and create volunteer organizations. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton each pushed for more volunteerism in our country and created the Peace Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and AmeriCorps respectively.  

Why has National Service been something that impassioned our presidents from the beginnings of our country? There must be a larger reason than it makes our country look good or it’s the right thing to do. There is. And it’s the same reason why those in the behavioral health field are drawn to including volunteering in treatment plans. So often the benefits for the service giver can be far greater than those of the service receiver.

President Kennedy summed it up when he petitioned Congress to approve the creation of the Peace Corps, “Our own young men and women, will return better able to assume the responsibilities of American citizenship and with greater understanding of our global responsibilities.” (Stossel page 208). These young adults weren’t just donating their time and talents, they were learning and gaining experience that would have them return more knowledgeable citizens ready to lead America’s next generation.

History Repeating Itself in Behavioral Health

This idea is not new to behavioral health. Service work was considered an integral part of substance abuse treatment in the 1970s. It was phased out in the 1980s and 1990s, but is now coming back. Because patients respond to it, Alison Knopf categorized this new trend in her article Volunteer work for patients: It’s fashionable again written for Addiction Professional’s website. She references multiple organizations that thought to combine volunteering and substance abuse in their treatment plans. The acts of service range from cleaning up beaches to feeding the homeless to mentoring new patients.

Though some are resistant at first, patients ultimately react positively to volunteerism and service. They feel capable and can see tangible evidence of their hard work. Treatment centers aren’t the only organizations placing a larger emphasis on service. Correctional centers have also started doing this. Cheryl Steed, senior psychologist specialist at the California Men’s Colony, gives a TED talk where she talks about how helping others helped the inmates she works with.

The inmates Steed highlighted each committed murder and were serving very long sentences. They’ve been included in the facility’s Gold Coat program. These men are each assigned another inmate who is older and has dementia. The older patients cannot fully care for themselves. Without the members of the Gold Coat Program, they would have been transferred to a medical facility with much less freedom and attention. The Gold Coats assist the older inmates through every aspect of their days-getting dressed, meal times, activities, and medical appointments.

Steed interviews each of the men and each highlight how fulfilled they feel from this program and they have learned patience and tolerance. They recognize how this experience has changed them and note how if they had met an older person with a mental illness in their younger days, they would have turned away. By incorporating transformational service in this way, the California Men’s Colony can turn prisons into a place for reform rather than punishment.

Transformational Service

Engaging in service doesn’t mean that person doesn’t need help; however, encouraging volunteerism as a part of Mental Health or Addiction recovery efforts can improve their psychological state.  It can change their feeling of “I’m someone who needs help,” to “I’m someone who can help others, including myself.”  Consider programs like YouthBuild that enroll young low-income and at-risk youths into GED preparatory classes combined with occupational skills training ensure that those individuals work on projects that help their community as well as themselves. This feeling of empowerment gained from helping others is immeasurable. 

These programs create a cycle of helping others while also working on yourself.  And when service participants begin to realize that they can impact the lives of others, they will find greater benefit in the services that are provided to them.  Individuals in behavioral health treatment can adapt this same model to boost their own receptiveness to positive change.

When this psychological shift takes place, Transformational Service has been achieved.  

Reflection is Paramount

Transformational Service can’t be achieved without reflection. The most important aspect of a service project (episodic, or ongoing) is reflecting on one’s actions, motives, and final feelings about the experience(s).  Addiction is a selfish illness. But by including acts of service and thoughtful reflection into treatment plans, patients can take the first steps towards selflessness.

It is incumbent upon therapists and counselors to ensure that clients engaged in service as a compliment to treatment are reflecting on those experiences.  Whether it’s expressed through talking, writing in a journal, or creating art, processing the emotions of the service experience is the key to making the psychological empowerment shift that will produce the complete benefits of Transformational Service experiences.


Sarge, The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver. Scott Stossel. Smithsonian Books, Washington. 2004.

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