Volunteers in psychotherapy: Community engagement and personal change

Robert O., Jr. Hubbell (2006)

This study is centrally concerned with the meaning of the combined actions of helping others and being a recipient of help, as experienced by a group of individuals who volunteer in their communities and as a result of such helping receive reduced fee or no-fee psychotherapy services themselves. These help related activities are part of a novel treatment delivery/payment model called Volunteers in Psychotherapy, Inc. (VIP), a non-profit organization. VIP clients earn their therapy by providing volunteer work to charitable organizations of their choice. This dissertation attempts to contribute to the understanding and refinement of effective, and socially responsible and engaged psychotherapeutic practices, as well as to directly benefit and highlight the emancipatory goals of the client-participants who participated in the project. This research addressed the following question: how does volunteerism and psychotherapy interact within the VIP participants narrative account of this work? This issue was approached from a discursive psychology perspective. Thirteen current and recent VIP client-volunteers were interviewed about their experiences, and transcribed interviews were qualitatively analyzed, with results suggesting four main findings: (1) Participants were powerfully drawn to the "idea" of the VIP and the possibilities and opportunities this model suggests. (2) The experience of volunteering provided an opportunity for growth, change, and self-reflection (seen as broadly "therapeutic"). (3) Participants' VIP experience served to situate and construct themselves as agents, subjects and patients (this was empowering in certain cases, and in other instances reflected ongoing struggles with lack of agency, "patient" status). (4) Reflecting on the VIP experience allowed the recognition and creation of multiple meanings connected with money, payment, valuation, and the exclusionary aspects of the mental health economy. Social and clinical implications are discussed, as are directions for future research and practice.