Sophie Hope is a 22-year-old neuroscience student who describes herself as an advocate for youth, mental health, refugees, human rights and animal welfare. She’s also the 2015 ACT Volunteer of the Year, and she has some big ideas for improving youth access to mental health services in Canberra.
Sophie first started volunteering as a teenager, fostering kittens from the RSPCA.
“From there I found lots of other opportunities to volunteer in areas I was passionate about. I was young and I had no qualifications, so while organisations generally weren’t able to pay me to be there, they were happy for me to volunteer,” she says.
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Sophie currently volunteers at youth mental health initiative Headspace, as well as in Lifeline Canberra’s telephone crisis support. She is a member of the ACT Refugee Action Committee, continues to provide foster care for animals at RSPCA ACT and played a significant role in the Youth Coalition of the ACT’s recent consultations with young people about mental health.
She says she finds volunteering more rewarding than paid work – even if it is for free.
“It doesn’t matter about not getting paid. You get so much out of volunteering – I’m in my fifth year of a neuroscience degree and I feel like I’ve learned more about psychology and science from volunteering than I have in a lecture theatre. You feel like you’re actually helping and doing something to make the world a tiny bit better,” she says.
In addition to volunteering, Sophie is committed to improving access to appropriate mental health treatments for Canberra’s young people.
“From a government level I’d like to see more money, more research and more resources committed to youth mental health, with a particular focus on training and education for those who come across youth regularly, such as emergency and health workers.”
She says she’d also like to see more education to reduce stigma against young people and mental illness, more accessible and affordable mental health services, and improved hospital admissions processes so that people at risk of self-harm or suicide can receive treatment sooner.
(I’ve embedded a video of a recent presentation Sophie made as part of the Youth Coalition of the ACT’s Youth Week events below, as she explains her experiences and perspectives on youth mental health much more eloquently than I can paraphrase. It’s worth watching.)
Sophie’s advice to young people looking to having a go at volunteering is to let their interests guide their decisions.
“Find something that you’re really passionate about. If you don’t know what you’re passionate about then you might need to figure that out first. Then you can find organisations that relate to that passion, and see if you can volunteer there,” she says.
“Volunteering ACT is a great resource for helping volunteers get in touch with organisations that need volunteers, so you can always look there. Otherwise you can just turn up and start talking to people.
“I think it’s important to stress that even if you only have a tiny amount of time or you feel like you’re not qualified to help, you can help make a difference. Even if you only volunteer for one day a year, that’s better than nothing.”