Teens volunteering protects against poor mental health

Content type
Media release

May 2023

A new report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) has found that if a child is involved in volunteering before the age of 13, the odds of having poor mental health are reduced by around 28%.

As well, children who demonstrate ‘prosocial’ behaviours, such as caring for others or doing acts of kindness, were 11% less likely to experience mental ill-health.

The data was collected as part of Growing Up in Australia: A Longitudinal Study of Children (LSAC) which has been following the development of 10,000 children since 2003.

AIFS researcher, Karlee O’Donnell, said the findings indicate that parents should encourage their children to volunteer in the community, particularly in the pre-teen years.

“Volunteering is one way for children to develop their prosocial skills as it provides the opportunity to care for others, show kindness and learn to take on others' perspectives,” O’Donnell said.

“This study shows the tremendous benefits of volunteering for reducing the risk of mental ill-health – especially in the pre-teen years when mental health symptoms often come to the fore for children or become worse.”

The volunteering can take many forms, such as helping at a local community sports club, participating in a community working bee, or more formal volunteering with a charity or church group.

“It’s the act of helping others in the wider community, and building empathy and understanding, that is a critical protective factor against mental ill-health,” O’Donnell said.

AIFS Director, Dr Sharman Stone, said the findings indicate that having positive connection to the community through volunteering or “offering a hand” can be a strong prevention against mental ill health.

“Parents, carers, schools and policymakers should be more aware of its value and be supportive and encouraging,” Dr Stone said.  

“Now more than ever we are seeing the serious impact of mental ill health on young Australians – which includes high youth suicide rates and the high numbers of teens diagnosed with clinical anxiety and depression.”

Minister for Social Services, Amanda Rishworth, said this research is further proof that young people should consider volunteering.

“This is a particularly important message in National Volunteering Week. We know the number of volunteers fell during COVID and our Government is committed to doing all we can to highlight the importance of volunteering,” Minister Rishworth said.

“Lots of young people give up their time to improve the environment or their community, this research demonstrates that volunteering can also bring tremendous benefit to volunteers themselves.”

The level of poor mental health symptoms in children increases in each year of development, with a substantial increase between the ages of 13 and 17.

The study followed children from age 4-5 years through to 16-17 years, examining, over time what effect the cultivation or promotion of ‘prosocial’ behaviours and volunteering had on mental health.

Access the full report: Prosocial behaviours and the positive impact on mental health

LSAC is on ongoing national study. In 2004 around 5,000 babies aged up to one, and 5,000 4 to 5 year-olds and their families were recruited and have been surveyed every two years since. This has given researchers a deep understanding of the experiences of children growing up in Australia.

AIFS conducts original research to increase understanding of Australian families and the issues that affect them, see aifs.gov.au

Media contact     
Kate O'Connor      
Phone: 0499 860 257  
Email: kate.o'[email protected]