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Kids Who Help, Heal

SMILE! Aiding your community, such as by volunteering at a community garden, might improve your mental health. JOSE LUIS PELAEZ, INC./GETTY IMAGES

A recent study says volunteering can be good for your health. Could it offer a way through the youth mental health crisis?

Kids and teenagers who volunteer aren’t just helping their community. They might also be helping themselves. That’s according to new research published in JAMA Network Open, in May. It found that volunteering through school or community groups is associated with better wellness among children and teens.

Kids who participated in community service were 34% more likely to be in very good physical health than those who didn’t participate, the study found. And those who volunteered were 66% more likely to be considered “flourishing,” or doing well in general. Kids ages 12 and older who volunteered were 25% less likely to have anxiety than peers who didn’t. The findings come from survey data provided by the parents of some 50,000 kids in the United States ages 6 to 17. About half of those parents reported that their kids did volunteer work.

Studies like this have limitations. Parents answered questions about their kids’ health and community-service activity. But a parent might not know if their child experiences anxiety or considers themselves to be flourishing. This type of data also can’t prove cause and effect. It can only uncover associations. So it’s not possible to say for sure that volunteering leads to better mental and physical health. It could be that people in good health are more likely to have the energy or desire to volunteer.

But the data comes at an important time for youth mental health. In recent years, rates of depression and anxiety have risen among young people. More than 40% of high school students reported experiencing feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021. So there’s a clear need for accessible and effective mental health resources. Giving back to the community may be one such resource. And this study isn’t the only one to reach that conclusion.

Previous research has also found links between volunteering and well-being among adults. Serving the community seems to help people feel a sense of purpose. And it makes them feel connected to those around them. Generosity has also been shown to boost happiness and improve physical health. It might be a practice worth cultivating.