Many students waste away their summer with Netflix and takeaways – but not all of them. Some UCLan students used this summer to do adventurous and interesting things. One Psychology with Psychotherapy and Counselling student – Christopher Fell – used his summer to experience something amazing. Here he writes about his journey:
This summer was about getting outside of my comfort zone and pushing my limits – finding myself by seeing what I’m really capable of – while also both gaining relevant experience in my field, and growing as a person through unique, challenging experiences. I went on a placement in Sri Lanka and the expedition which helped me grow as a person, and provided help to those less fortunate. In Sri Lanka we were teaching English in some of the poorest communities, as well as providing creative outlets, interaction, and the development of various psycho-social and psycho-motor skills for special needs and mental health patients; and climbing Kilimanjaro was in aid of Cancer Care, Alex House Lancaster, and the Kilimanjaro Orphanage Centre (which we visited with gifts at the end of the trip).
It felt incredibly rewarding, especially for someone that suffers social anxiety, to have put myself in a position where I was going to go live and work in another country with nobody I knew, and then again to join an expedition team without knowing any of the other members – to go through with both things in one summer, is definitely something I can be proud of. I also got to make a difference to the lives of others, rather than doing those things just for personal gain or achievement, which is a massive reward in itself.
In Sri Lanka I volunteered with an organisation called SLV. They’ve been out there 6 years now, working closely in partnership with Samutthana, the King’s College London centre for trauma, displacement, and mental health in Sri Lanka. They aim to try and make a difference, to change the long standing Sri Lankan social stigma against mental health through the improvement of understanding (psycho-education), conditions, and by providing examples of best practice. SLV have a fresh intake of volunteers each week, on placements ranging from 5 to 12 weeks. There were around 86 of us in my intake, which was quite a large one. During orientation week the new intake get to visit projects where existing volunteers are working, so they can see what we do before they have to start themselves. They also keep notes for each project as to what has been done before, what works with which patients etc, which get reviewed at weekly session planning so they get some continuation of service and less repetition of activities etc.
Teaching English was actually kind of fun. There were child classes made up of primary school kids as young as first grade (so cute!), youth/community classes made up of ages anywhere from 11 to 45, and even some classes in a military college at an airbase. Several of the community classes were taught in spare rooms in Buddhist temples that the chief incumbents had graciously allowed to be used free of charge. English is becoming more & more important in Sri Lanka and all job interviews are now conducted in English, so to stand any chance of getting a decent job and being able to help bring themselves and their families out of poverty, having good English is imperative. Many of our students already received English classes, but these were usually taught by an educated Sri Lankan, so they relished the rare opportunity to interact with native English speakers. One teenage girl I taught had been to dozens of different courses/classes, but only our class had ever given her that much desired opportunity. All of our learners were so grateful and respectful towards us for the service we were providing them. We often received a cup of sweet tea with cake or bread as a thank you from the staff or the monks at the places we taught, and plenty of high-fives and smiles from the kids!
Many of our learners were already quite good at English yeah. Some of the community groups we had already had their own technical/grammar classes on a weekend, so what they really wanted from us wasn’t syllabus lessons but more speaking practice. The older ones that had jobs already wanted to practice their conversational English so they could chat about their daily lives when they bumped into a friend in the supermarket, while the younger ones often wanted more vocational English, i.e. interview and presentation practice. Their first language is Sinhala (also known as Sinhalese). We received a Sinhala lesson during orientation week, but most Sri Lankans spoke much better English than we spoke Sinhala! Haha
The psycho-social and psycho-motor skills development was a big part of what we did with the special needs and mental health patients. If you think of basic arts and crafts skills we take for granted, like being able to colour in a simple line drawing while staying inside the lines, that is actually a fine motor skill that many of our patients struggled with. Even working as a group on a collage, or playing a simple team-based ball game, requires the ability to interact in a social capacity and the ability to cooperate towards achieving a common goal. These are not things many of our patients had the opportunity to do in their daily lives on the wards, when they had little to their names above the clothes they stood up in and the bed they were provided. We would turn up to sessions with all of the materials and tools needed to run whatever activity we planned for a session (stuff we’d bought ourselves), thus providing our patients with the opportunities to practice and develop those skills that they wouldn’t otherwise get, as mental health institutions in Sri Lanka receive little to no government support, often replying on handouts from local community and church groups to survive.
The sweet tea and cakes was mainly provided by the monks at temples, or by teaching staff at the schools we went into – often they saw our classes as beneficial to them as well as the students, as it meant they got much needed breaks to relax or catch up on paperwork. We also had some ‘Nationals’, Sri Lankans that worked for our organisation, they were invaluable for explaining concepts in class in Sinhala when our meaning wasn’t being understood in English, and some of them also seemed to get something out of our classes themselves, improving their own English too! While Buddhist monks live simply, the temples themselves tend to be fairly well off beacuse of the donations from religious types (similar to the way churches here operate I suppose).
Sri Lankans as a whole are very kind and generous. Being a traditionally collectivist culture they look out for each other and consequently you as you’re there within their culture. They’d do whatever they can to help, even if that means your tuktuk driver stopping to ask for directions half a dozen times to get you to your destination when he wasn’t really sure how to get there. They’re very friendly and have a bit of a ‘gossip’ culture, so we were often stopped in the street to be asked ‘how are you?’ and ‘where are you going?’, not just to have some gossip to tell but also out of genuine caring for the well-being of these respected teachers that were living within their culture.
You don’t really appreciate all that you have until you spend some time alongside people that don’t have those things. But as advanced and as rich as we see ourselves in our individualistic culture, they certainly seem richer in terms of the way they interact socially.
Mental health is something that needs to gain better recognition in Sri Lankan. They seem to have a greater genetic predisposition towards schizophrenia and psychosis than we do in the west, yet the understanding of mental illness that the general populace have is kind of around where we were 50 years ago or more (labelling people spastics and shunning them from society, sort of thing). Some Sri Lankans see mental illness as any other illness – you get pills from the doctor and then you’re cured – they don’t understand you can have a condition that makes you different for life. Others see it as a religious thing, you’ve been afflicted because of bad karma from this life or the next, consequently that reflects badly on the family too and so some families and communities won’t even accept someone back once they’ve spent time admitted on a psychiatric ward. One place we worked was a ‘halfway house’ for women that weren’t being accepted back. It has been full for 23 years and all the patients there will be there until they die, even though they have family on the outside. With Sri Lanka I fell in love, and at the same time Sri Lanka completely and utterly broke my heart.
Most of the volunteers were quite enthusiastic when we first arrived, but the long weeks did take their toll. Admittedly many were there for CV purposes, or at least that was an initial factor, but when you came to know your students and patients you couldn’t help but finding projects you loved going to and thus developing a real caring for those under your care and supervision. Attitudes towards mental health and the conditions of facilities have been slowly improving on Sri Lanka, they are better now than they were 5 or 10 years ago, but there is still quite a way to go. Positively changing a deeply embedded social norm is a very long, slow process.
The group I did Kilimanjaro with was different. Organised over 2 years by Shaun Gash, a T5 paraplegic who participates in all sorts of sporting events like mud runs and basketball, we were a group of 28 (some of us from as far away as Singapore) that wanted to get involved in something incredible and make a difference to other people’s lives. We actually visited the orphanage after we completed the mountain. The kids there seemed happy and well nourished, but they were obviously starved of a certain level of human interaction. We took t-shirts, games, and toys to give as gifts, but some were content just being held or having a hand to hold on to for a while. One little girl reached out to me to be picked up almost as soon as we’d arrived, and refused to be put down or let go of. Eventually I put her to bed after she had fallen asleep in my arms, but she was back in the arms of another one of our team soon after waking.
Most of us that went to Kili were English from around Lancaster. They guys from Singapore are expats that live & work out there now, so communication between the team wasn’t a problem. We also had 86 porters, 4 cooks, and 11 guides (all Tanzanian). Most of them knew enough English to talk to us, and obviously the guides all have quite good English. They have a ‘song of Kilimanjaro’ they would sing to us in Swahili that kept me going at some points when I was ready to quit!