Having become slightly addicted to exploring this summer I've decided to start a new (and probably very irregular) travel series full of what I've discovered along the way. I was lucky enough to spend 5 weeks working and travelling in Sri Lanka this summer, so Ayebowan (welcome in Sinhala) and here goes!
Whilst in Sri Lanka I completed a 5 week Mental Health and Psychology placement and can honestly say it was one of the best experiences of my life. Monday to Friday I ran creative sessions in special needs centres, psychiatric units and mental health care homes, and also taught English to children and young adults. The charity I volunteered with is extremely ethical and works closely with a national Sri Lankan team to ensure that the projects being worked on can benefit from international volunteers and that the charity not only has no negative effect on the local community but also contributes in a positive, long term way.
I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity to see how a different culture approaches mental health and special needs, but mostly I am so grateful to have met so many amazing people on projects. From the incredible men at one of the special needs centres who despite having no staff to support them were some of the happiest, friendliest and most accepting people I've ever met and who made our art and music therapy sessions some into the best hours to the seemingly shy 6 year olds who within half an hour of English language games become excitable balls of energy screaming out alphabet letters and becoming beyond entertained by our (sometimes shocking) attempts to speak acceptable Sinhala, and whose grandparents at the end thank you and give you give you gifts of garlic tea (Speaking English in Sri Lanka can improve job opportunities as many university interviews are carried out in English).
I won't pretend that undertaking this type of placement doesn't have some challenging and honestly heart-breaking moments, but whether you're interacting with nurses and patients in a psychiatric home with an average patient stay of 20 years or teaching college students how to direct each other in English it was clear just how much can be achieved by simply entering a situation with a completely open mind and treating everyone you meet with some empathy, compassion, and a smile and greeting of Ayebowan. Despite gaining so much experience in the field I want to work in, the most important thing I learnt during this placement was the importance and positivity of community and, put very simply, just being friendly and nice to the people you meet every day! As somebody whose used to being plugged into headphones and possibly in my own little world a lot of the time it made such a change to have conversations about everything from my name and country to favourite foods with somebody I happened to sit next to on a bus or meet in a hospital, and this was made even more interesting by the language barrier sometimes resulting in the conversation taking place in part English, part Sinhala and a whole lot of body language and smiling to make up for the confusion!
So thank you, to the women in one hospital who played snap with me and taught me to count to ten in their language while I taught them in mine. To the man who sang the same line of a song no-one knew over and over while playing clapping games with us for hours at a time.To the aspiring baking students who took friendly competition to a hilarious level in an English speaking direction game. To the women on a secure ward whose situations were some of the saddest I've ever seen but who played catch with a balloon with a face drawn on and smiled. To the sisters in one home who were completely obsessed with bubbles and just loved having new faces to play with.
And to the elderly man who told me that volunteers coming and listening to his stories is the highlight of his day.
Thanks for reading, and let me know in the comments if you have any volunteering stories or your thoughts on this post.