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What I learned working abroad in Sri Lanka

Alba Sirvent-Gonzalez, BSc Psychology student, spent five weeks in Sri Lanka completing a work placement focused on mental health and wellbeing. She received a £1,000 Santander Universities Go Abroad bursary to help fund her experience.

The work placement I undertook last summer was aimed at promoting positive mental health and wellbeing in the country of Sri Lanka. During my five-week placement, I participated in the planning and running of sessions for people with different disabilities and mental health conditions, together with other volunteers. I was involved in nine different projects each week, where I worked with individuals with patients in psychiatric facilities, as well as those with special needs and physical impairments. I also taught English to young adults.

Since I am a Psychology student, this placement was a great opportunity for me because it gave me the chance to gain some practical experience in a mental health setting. In the psychiatric hospitals, I worked with patients with a wide variety of mental conditions, including depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, or borderline personality disorder. Furthermore, the work placement also included a one-day field trip, in which we were able to shadow a psychiatrist. We met two of the patients that were being treated in the hospital and were given the opportunity to ask them questions to figure out their diagnosis and to propose a treatment plan. One of the patients, for example, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and it was interesting to see how the symptoms of this condition –such as delusions and disorganised speech – are expressed in a real-life case.

In addition to helping me strengthen my understanding of mental health conditions, this work placement also offered me the opportunity to work on additional personal skills, such as adaptability and problem-solving. For instance, although the service users that participated in each project shared similar conditions, the degrees of severity varied within a same group. For this reason, when running a session, we had to identify the service users’ abilities as we worked with them, and modify sessions to tailor them to their abilities and needs. Being able to think on my feet and to quickly adapt in each project was thus vital to make each session successful.

This experience has also provided me with the opportunity to work on my communication skills. Although English is spoken by some Sri Lankan people, Sinhala –the main language in Sri Lanka – was the only language spoken by a large proportion of the individuals that we worked with. Furthermore, this situation was made more challenging by the fact that some individuals also had speech or communication deficits. In spite of these difficulties, me and the other volunteers were able to effectively communicate with the service users to run the sessions that we had planned.

Lastly, this work placement has given me the opportunity to immerse myself in a completely different culture. I have been able to experience how mental health is treated and viewed not only in a different country, but in a country where the population still holds great stigma towards mental health. In addition to this, I was also required to adopt a Sri Lankan appropriate dress code and behaviour, not only at projects, but also at the homestays in which we lived with a Sri Lankan family. Besides gaining invaluable cultural awareness, this experience has also made me more aware and respectful of other people’s views, which has strengthened my interpersonal skills.

This has been a rich and unique experience that has benefited me both academically and personally. I have been given the chance to discover and develop a wide set of vital skills, as well as work on my weaknesses. In addition to this, the skills I have developed in this placement will hopefully give me an advantage when I move from an academic to a work setting.

Funding for this opportunity was provided by Santander Universities