#FaithinPartnership Week

11th – 15th September

See what happened during our week celebrating and championing cross-sector working!

A role for faith communities in mental health wards

In this guest blog, Marion Janner, director of Star Wards, talks about the role that volunteers can play in mental health wards.


Mental health wards are tough places to be a patient but surprisingly enjoyable and satisfying to be a volunteer. There are a range of wards, some for particular populations e.g. young or old people, mothers and babies, and others providing specialist support for people with particular mental health needs e.g. eating disorders, while secure units have more intensive support and security for people with higher risk. Wherever a patient is, they are going through exceptionally difficult emotions and the unusualness and inevitable isolation of being hospitalised compounds matters. But volunteers can transform people’s days!

Volunteers are welcomed on most wards, as their role and relationships are very special. They bring an energy, kindness and independence which patients cherish, and staff really appreciate the extra attention and experiences that patients get. There is a huge need for volunteers from local faith communities on mental health wards, whether there is an explicit faith component to their involvement or a different focus. Many patients find their spirituality is especially important to them during an emotional crisis, one which takes them away from home, family, friends and their local community. This can be intensified if they are from a minority faith which may be unfamiliar to other patients and staff. Some wards are wonderful about trying to meet people’s spiritual needs, and hospital chaplains do a fantastic job. But other wards really struggle and support from local congregations is greatly appreciated.

There is understandable concern among potential volunteers about issues like how safe it will be, whether it will be upsetting and what support will be available. Wards themselves are concerned about these – for all staff, visitors and indeed patients. There should be strong support in place for volunteers, and an agreement about the particular role individuals take as well as good information about what the volunteer can expect, limits of their responsibilities and what they should do if they have concerns.

Most ward volunteers find that patients and staff are so appreciative of their involvement, and the activities shared are so enjoyable, that the unavoidable difficulties of the environment tend to melt into the background. But it’s definitely not for everyone!

Diane Bown, the head of volunteering for the Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust wrote:

“Volunteers are the icing on the cake. The analogy I use is to compare our volunteering programme, where volunteers visit patients and keep them company, to a fairy cake. If it’s just sponge, you can eat it, but put a bit of icing on it and it’s so much more palatable. What the volunteers do is the human, social stuff. They can sit on the wards and play Scrabble from the beginning to the end without getting called away.”


What volunteers gain


  • Giving something back, making a difference.
  • Enjoying new challenges, developing new skills, having fun
  • Improving one’s confidence, health and well being
  • Exploring new types of work, benefitting from training opportunities, getting warm references
  • Satisfaction of contributing to people who are very unhappy and probably feeling very cut-off from wider world
  • Meeting extraordinary people coping in an extreme situation – patients and staff!
  • Helping volunteer feel more connected to their local community
  • Using skills from different parts of their lives eg:
    • Professional
    • Personal/social
    • Cultural
    • Leisure



Potential roles

Faith related activities

  • Providing information or training to staff about patients’ faith communities
  • Sharing the Sabbath and festivals
  • Making cards, decorations, gifts for festivals
  • Keeping regular congregants up-to-date with news from the rest of the congregation
  • Music – singing, playing instruments, listening to liturgy and other religious music
  • Sharing prayers, contemplation, readings
  • Running a spirituality group or session
  • Helping keep the multi-faith room in good shape and well-resourced
  • Accompanying patients, with staff if needed, to place of worship


An A-Z of Volunteer Roles

With thanks to Volunteering England

  • Activity groups – discussion, arts, music, film, books, quiz….
  • Advocacy
  • Arts & crafts
  • Befriending/ buddying
  • Benefit advice
  • Café
  • Carer support
  • Chaplaincy Visitor
  • Clubs eg book club, film club, gardening club, computer club, art club
  • Computers and Internet
  • Dining Companion
  • Discharge support
  • Entertainment and events
  • Exercise – to music, football, table tennis, walking
  • Fish tank maintenance
  • Flower and plant care
  • Fundraising
  • Games players (e.g Scrabble player companion)
  • Gardening and decorating
  • Hairdressing
  • Home escorts for vulnerable patients
  • Humour – comedy nights (DVD or stand-up), noticeboards, books etc.
  • Information/leaflet organisers
  • Interpreter
  • Job help – CVs, interview practice, job search etc.
  • Letter writer
  • Library
  • Magazine supplier and reader
  • Massage and aromatherapy massage
  • Mealtime support and food events – tea parties, baking etc
  • Meet and greet/welcomer
  • Music
  • Pampering for the ladies, grooming for the gents
  • PAT dogs/ animal visits
  • Peer educators and supporters
  • Plain language volunteers (to de-jargon written materials)
  • Runner (of errands in and out of hospital)
  • Shoppers
  • Skin camouflage (for patients who self-harm)
  • Social events organisers /helpers
  • Speech and language volunteers
  • Sport companions and organisers
  • Support groups for specific health conditions
  • Therapeutic hand care
  • Transport (drivers)
  • Walking companions
  • Ward makeovers
  • Yoga


How to arrange volunteering

There are various ways of contacting a ward or hospital to explore volunteering.

  • Website – could be under ‘Work for us’ section
  • Local volunteering organisation (eg CVS)
  • Ring switchboard and say you’re interested in volunteering. They’ll pass you on to the right department.
  • PALS – Patients Advice and Liaison Service – each hospital has a PALS team
  • Chaplaincy – either hospital or via your own faith leader
  • Local mental health vol org eg Mind or Rethink



Wardipedia has hundreds of examples of group and other activities for mental health inpatients, e.g. gardening, music, art. It also has a feature on spirituality; although it’s written for ward staff, it would be of interest to volunteers and others.

Spirituality and Mental Health from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. This leaflet has lots of useful insights and ideas.

This is a useful list of resources from the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ spirituality and psychiatry special interest group.

Spiritual Care and Psychiatric Treatment: An Introduction by Larry Culliford

This article looks at definitions of terms such as ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ and what they may mean to different people. He also lists further resources that you may find useful.

Multi-Faith Group for Healthcare Chaplaincy

Seeks to advance multi-faith chaplaincy in England and Wales. They have a useful list of resources including a comprehensive document on religious and spiritual needs for staff at Derby Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

Jewish Mental Health

This London-based resource has lots of information and ideas that go beyond both the capital and the Jewish community.

Don’t mention God! by Peter Gilbert and Natalie Watts (2006)

Explores mental health and social inclusion, looking at the NIMHE (National Institute for Mental Health in England) spirituality project.

Taken Seriously: the Somerset Spirituality Project (2002)

This is free to download report from the Mental Health Foundation website, featuring interviews and discussions with mental health service users interested in religious or spiritual beliefs.