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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Volunteering in the care of people with severe mental illness: a systematic review

Claudia Hallett1, Günter Klug2, Christoph Lauber3 and Stefan Priebe1*

Author affiliations

1 Academic Unit for Social and Community Psychiatry, Barts & the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London, Newham Centre for Mental Health, London E13 8SP, UK

2 Psychosocial Services, Society of Mental Health Promotion, PSD Graz East, Hasnerplatz 4, Graz, A-8010, Austria

3 Department of Psychiatry, University of Liverpool, 2nd Floor Block B, Waterhouse Building, 1-5 Brownlow Street, Liverpool, L69 3GL, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Psychiatry 2012, 12:226  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-12-226

Published: 13 December 2012



Much of the literature to date concerning public attitudes towards people with severe mental illness (SMI) has focused on negative stereotypes and discriminatory behaviour. However, there also exists a tradition of volunteering with these people, implying a more positive attitude. Groups with positive attitudes and behaviours towards people with SMI have received relatively little attention in research. They merit further attention, as evidence on characteristics and experiences of volunteers may help to promote volunteering. The present paper aims to systematically review the literature reporting characteristics, motivations, experiences, and benefits of volunteers in the care of people with SMI.


In November 2010, a systematic electronic search was carried out in BNI, CINAHL, Embase, Medline, PsycINFO, Cochrane Registers and Web of Science databases, using a combination of ‘volunteer’, ‘mental health’ and ‘outcome’ search terms. A secondary hand search was performed in relevant psychiatric journals, grey literature and references.


14 papers met the inclusion criteria for the review, with data on a total of 540 volunteers. The results suggest that volunteers are a mostly female, but otherwise heterogeneous group. Motivations for volunteering are a combination of what they can ‘give’ to others and what they can ‘get’ for themselves. Overall volunteers report positive experiences. The main benefit to persons with a psychiatric illness is the gaining of a companion, who is non-stigmatizing and proactive in increasing their social-community involvement.


The evidence base for volunteers in care of people with SMI is small and inconsistent. However there are potential implications for both current and future volunteering programmes from the data. As the data suggests that there is no ‘typical’ volunteer, volunteering programmes should recruit individuals from a variety of backgrounds. The act of volunteering can not only benefit people with SMI, but also the volunteers. Further research may specify methods of recruiting, training, supervising and using volunteers to maximise the benefit for all involved.

Volunteering; Severe mental illness (SMI); Social support