I thought people would think I was too young and inexperienced to help them. But that has never happened.
I am 21 years old and studying for a psychology degree. At the beginning of my third year last September, I started to think about what I wanted to do afterwards and decided I wanted to work in the mental health sector. I didn’t have any previous experience and started looking at the Manchester Mind website. MVAP popped up and I thought it would be useful – to be working in the community. It’s not directly mental health but I feel the benefits system is closely linked to mental health. I wasn’t very confident and I thought it would also be a good opportunity to meet people whilst also giving advice. I pushed myself to join the project.
I began the training in September – it was very detailed and interesting. I started giving advice in December after I’d been shadowing people. I was really quite shy and scared to start with. I thought people would think I was too young and inexperienced to help them. But that has never happened. I have met young people and old people. People come for a reason and even the little things can really help them. So if they feel that they can’t fill out a form, I’ll encourage them to do something they can, like make a phone call. I feel empowered by helping other people to be empowered. My own communication skills have really improved – my listening skills especially. And now I’m so much more confident. I expected that I might improve my confidence through volunteering, but there have been multiple effects I didn’t expect.
I knew nothing about the benefits system before, so learning about it has helped me understand more about society in general. People have such a negative view and there’s a stigma about people who are on benefits, like they don’t want to work. Now I realise that’s a common misconception and that being on benefits is a really stressful process – I’ve seen it by helping people here fill out the forms and all the medical assessments they have to go through. They’re not applying because they don’t want to work, they need it. It’s more stressful to be on benefits than not to be on benefits.
On the training I met other volunteers from different backgrounds – retired, out of work, other students, and people with experience of being on benefits. Before I only knew students. Now I feel a part of the wider community of Manchester by being part of the community at Manchester Mind. I sometimes bump into people during the day and it’s nice to see familiar faces. I’ve also been able to access other training through Manchester Mind. I did an 8 week mindfulness course which has really helped me with stress – especially during my exams.
I talk to my housemates about what I’m doing and they think it’s cool. Not many 21 year olds have this knowledge. I feel really proud. There’s something so unique about giving face to face advice.
I don’t think if I was volunteering in a charity shop I would feel as good about it and there’s something selfish about that. You can see you’re really helping. One of my friends also came to MVAP because I told her about it, and she is just starting to volunteer at Centrepoint. This experience has really helped me to realise that I do want to work in the community. My final exams have just finished and I have applied for jobs as a support worker – I think it will be a similar empowering role to advice work. MVAP have given me a reference and I have my first job interview with the NHS next week which is very exciting!