Global Voices: Volunteering is antidote to back-to-school stress

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

And they’re getting very stressed out.

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With unfamiliar environments, heavier workload, and social challenges, the switch from elementary school to high school is rough.

When 800 new high schoolers rated their feelings of anxiety on a scale of one to 10, 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,” Heath says. The biggest benefit is making new friends. High school is a social minefield. In Grade 9, elementary 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 behaviour.

Serving food in a soup kitchen or chatting with folks in a seniors’ home forces a teenager 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.

Volunteering can help students unwind as they focus on the immediate needs of others, instead of their own anxieties, helping them build both perspective and empathy, a trait that doctors say is a powerful tool against stress.

Confidence takes a real beating in Grade 9, as youth find themselves back at the bottom of the social ladder.

Good self-esteem is the best defence for surviving the change, says Greg Lubimiv, executive director of the Phoenix Centre, a youth counselling agency in Renfrew County, Ont.

We’ve found that, among youth who volunteer through our service programs, 61 per cent of report feeling increased self-esteem. They’re 1.3 times more likely to have a strong sense of self than their peers, and are more comfortable adapting to change, according to an independent study by research firm Mission Measurement.

Stress doesn’t have to be entirely bad, Heath notes. It can be an opportunity to overcome challenges, which builds resiliency. Volunteering helps teenagers cope, build leadership skills and, of course, start a life-long habit of giving back.

This fall, encourage the new high school student in your house to find a cause they’re passionate about and get involved. It won’t help them find their locker, but it will ease the stress.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.

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