I blogged recently about different ways to gain insight and experience relevant for clinical psychology, and included reference to opportunities to gain experience in Sri Lanka via SLV.
By great coincidence, I then came across a current student who had completed a placement with SLV earlier this year, and she offered to write a piece for my blog about her (very positive) experience there. Read on to find out more…….
‘With a degree in psychology, an interest in Clinical but no experience and struggling to find any, I applied to volunteer with SLV’s mental health progamme for 12 weeks, to help me make an informed decision about my career, and gain valuable experience.
The programme was very well organised, and we were expected to ‘hit the ground running’, with our arrival day to acclimatise ourselves to a new house, new people, new culture, before getting started.
There were four days of induction and lots of information to take in, including:
- teaching mechanisms,
- basic strategies for working in the mental health projects
- cultural norms and rules we were expected to follow.
plus time to get to know the people we would be working with and ask endless questions of the staff and current volunteers.
SLV work with a number of different community projects. Every volunteer has a diverse and flexible timetable, enabling volunteers to participate in a range of projects to maximise our benefit for the local population and ourselves. Each session lasted for about two hours.
On my mental health placement I gained a variety of different experiences:
- an afternoon a week in a mental health hospital; during my time there I worked on acute, intermediate, rehabilitation, occupational therapy, geriatric, forensic and learning difficulties wards.
- Another session was at a half way home for women, a place created to house women with no family once discharged from the mental health hospital. Only men are allowed back into society without familial supervision, therefore women would remain there until they pass away. This had intermediate, acute, rehabilitation and occupational therapy wards. It was very useful to gain experience in such a wide range of areas.
- Other mental health projects involved institutions for adults with learning or physical disabilities, in residential homes or day centres. These placements, if initially shocking due to the destitute conditions, became fun places to visit. I would spend time thinking of different activities for our sessions, working in groups or one to one with patients. I ran activities such as bracelet making, singing, creating dances, sports days and various arts and crafts. There was a language barrier with many of the patients but this genuinely did not pose much of a problem as I developed alternate ways to communicate. Often patients did not have any other forms of entertainment so would fully participate during visits.
I also worked on teaching projects. At first I was taken aback at the level of teaching expected of me whilst on the mental health placement, but I quickly realised its appeal. Half of my teaching was to adults and children with learning difficulties, the other half was to adults and children with a lack of former educational access. Many students were from slums, so we did a lot of teaching in temples to be granted teaching space. We also taught in orphanages. We always taught in groups and lesson planning time was scheduled every Monday morning. All of my classes were a pleasure to teach, students were occasionally silent and sometimes misbehaved, but it was amazing to watch them improve week by week. I found the teaching aspect illuminating.
In addition to the projects, SLV offered further options for development, being very attuned to the fact that many people were in Sri Lanka for career experience. They put on a programme of evening lectures and workshops conducted by specialists in different areas of psychology from the UK and Sri Lanka. I also spent a day shadowing a psychiatrist in a rural community; we spent the day in clinics he had established and doing home visits.
SLV also offered the chance to become a coordinator, this means you help the managers of SLV with project organisation, induction weeks, volunteer illness, timetable rearrangement and ensuring new volunteers settle in. I did this for the last month of my time there and found it quite hard work, but very beneficial.
Timetables ran from Monday to Friday, with both morning and afternoon projects, except Fridays when we had the afternoon to travel to our weekend destinations, exploring the island. This time in itself was incredible. Sri Lanka is a beautiful, relatively unspoiled country and I had time to explore much of what it had to offer
- sunbathing and surfing on white sandy beaches,
- snorkelling with sharks,
- watching turtles hatching, observing elephants and crocodiles in the wild,
- climbing a mountain overnight to take part in a Buddhist pilgrimage,
- trekking around beautiful countryside and learning an abundance about the rich culture and history in the process.
SLV is keen to encourage exploration and understanding of the country. Throughout the week we lived with a Sri Lankan family, eating Sri Lankan cuisine and learning to eat with our hands. We dressed in culturally appropriate clothing, even wearing a sari to important social events, took public transport and worked directly with the community.
The experience on the SLV projects was enough for me to recognise that I want to pursue Clinical Psychology. I am now doing an MSc in Psychological Research Methods with that in mind. SLV also provide references which has helped me with this.
However these are not the only reasons I am glad of this experience. There is still a huge stigma attached to mental health in Sri Lanka. When I was there only two clinical psychologists regularly practiced in the country. It also has the world’s fourth highest rate of suicide according to the World Health Organisation. However slight the difference I may have made, I’m very glad I had a chance to contribute.
And yes, there were difficult aspects, not just including the sweating, huge spiders and being incredibly filthy. However I made some great friends and we all helped each other through the challenges.
If you already have a broad wealth of experience in the mental health field there may not be much to learn from volunteering with SLV. But if you are struggling to get experience and want a basic knowledge of what working in a mental health environment will be like, SLV gives you valuable insight and experience of mental health practice in Sri Lanka, and a fascinating insight into a different culture, environment and community.’