Mental Health Volunteering in Sri Lanka
Last summer I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to go to Sri Lanka for a five week mental health placement with a company called Sri Lanka Volunteers (SLV). Whist in Sri Lanka I worked in a variety of different places ranging from mental health institutions to a drama and dance therapy group for people with special needs. We were also given the opportunity to teach English as a foreign language in schools. We attended various workshops; one on the trauma that Sri Lanka has experienced with events such as the civil war that only ended in 2009 and the tsunami in 2004, one on children’s homes in Sri Lanka and another on working with people with special needs.
Katy in traditional Sri Lankan dress
As a psychology student I found that all the experiences I had in Sri Lanka helped me understand what I had learnt in lectures in a much more practical way. Seeing the devastation caused by the tsunami and civil war really put what the people of Sri Lanka have been through into perspective for me in a way that I don’t think you can truly understand unless you see it in person. What struck me most was how kind people were and how much they were willing to help you even if it took them out of their way, and I think this shows how collectivist and appreciative Sri Lanka is as a country. This was especially highlighted once a project was finished because no matter where you’d been, whether it was a school or a day centre, everyone was so thankful to you for coming, we were told in our orientation that if you gave one child a high five at the end of a class you would have to give all the children one, and they weren’t wrong! It was lovely to be so appreciated as it made all our efforts seem worth it.
Left: “A hand tree made at a special needs project to illustrate that although everyone is different we are still part of the same wider community and we should treat everyone equally.”
Sri Lanka’s health care system is not as advanced as the UK’s NHS, so it was a great contrast to what we were used to at home, however, if anything this made us want to make more of a difference. We would go to each project with our rucksacks full of all different kind of craft activities, ranging from feathers to paint to glitter; we would make all manner of things that matched with the theme of our session, for instance one day our theme was colour so we made rainbows out of paper plates, feathers and pipe cleaners. I wanted to learn more about the coping techniques used in Sri Lanka; creative therapy was a great outlet for the people at the sessions as even something so simple as colouring in can be therapeutic and for patients with mental health problems this was a great way of allowing them to express themselves in a safe and quiet way.
Left: “This was made at a special needs project where we would
also teach basic English. Here we were teaching them about body parts.”
One day were given the opportunity to shadow one of Sri Lanka’s very few psychiatrists, we went with him to the hospitals and sat in whilst he saw the patients. This was my favourite part of the trip as we saw patients with a wide variety of mental health disorders, and even went on some home visits to see patients that didn’t attend the clinic. The home visits really highlighted to me the commitment of the doctor we were working with as he made the effort to go and make sure that these patients were alright, often travelling far distances for a five minute check up.
With all the work we did on projects during the week it was nice to have weekends off to explore the country and learn more about Sri Lankan culture. We travelled all over and did so much sightseeing, we did everything from whale watching, to climbing Sigiriya Rock which has an ancient fortress built on top of it. We were even lucky enough to be in Sri Lanka for the annual Buddhist festival known as the Esala Perahera which celebrates the Tooth Relic of the Lord Buddha, we saw about 100 elephants all dressed up in their finery and although the parade was long, lasting about two hours it was well worth the watch!
The Esala Perahara festival
Katy and friends at the top of Sigariya rock
My time in Sri Lanka was phenomenal and I learnt so much whilst I was out there, not just about mental health but also about different ways of life, I also even learnt a little Sinhala! I would definitely recommend the placement to any psychology student wishing to gain experience in mental health as every day is different and you’re constantly learning new things. Although the placement was tiring, I could not have asked for a better place to do it, Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with a rich culture and amazing food, and I would love to go back and see more of the country!