SLV Global is a mental health organisation launched in 2010 by a group of recently graduated Psychology students who, equipped with passion and drive, were keen to put their degrees to good use. They travelled to Sri Lanka, an environment where resources for individuals struggling with mental illness were scarce, and liaised with a local youth worker to create their Mental Health Placements. Their placements are perfect for anyone stuck in the eternal rut of “no experience, no opportunity”, giving driven and enthusiastic students, with little or no previous hands-on experience, the chance to build their skills in an exciting and new environment.

Paige, a second-year student studying BSc Psychology, completed a 5-week ‘Level- One’ mental health volunteer placement in Sri Lanka with SLV Global. Her work included working in psychiatric facilities with service users at varying stages of their recovery, teaching English in the community and working with individuals with special needs.

If this sounds like something you would be interested in, read on to find out more about her experience!

How did you discover the internship?

UCL emailed me about it and I thought it looked interesting so I thought what’s the harm in applying.

Tell us about the application process; any application hints?

The application process was super easy. I had to fill out a simple online application form, which asked about previous experience, academic qualifications and all the usual stuff you’re asked when applying for a job. If you get through that stage, then they’ll call you up for a phone interview. The woman who did mine was super friendly and it was actually a joy to talk to her. In terms of application hints, apart from obviously having past experience and really showing that you’re good at working with people with mental illnesses/special needs, I’d say definitely show that you’ve got cultural awareness. It’s a massive part of SLV’s ethos and they really don’t want to take on people who are going to be constantly complaining about the living conditions, heat, or how you don’t like the food. Show that you’re willing to embrace every part of the culture no matter how much you don’t like it and you’ll be fine.

What sort of work did you engage in? Tell us about a typical day, or the programme in general.

Basically, when you arrive you’ll be given your week timetable. Each day you’ll go to one project in the morning, and one in the afternoon, and there are several different types of project. For me, these were psychiatric, special needs and teaching English, but you might not be placed on psychiatric projects if you don’t have enough experience. The work we did depended on the project. Obviously, teaching English was just doing that and would usually take place in schools and community centres. Special needs projects were my absolute favourite and would usually involve doing art and crafts or other activities such as singing and dancing with the [patients] and just generally having fun. The psychiatric projects were definitely the most challenging. They took place in psychiatric hospitals which as you can imagine aren’t going to be very nice in Sri Lanka. The wards were huge rooms with 50 plus beds in them, and sadly, the patients were quite clearly heavily medicated and sort of just stared or walked around aimlessly. It was incredibly sad to see. Again, the work just generally focused on providing activities for the patients which is really important. SLV told us that only 1% of the Sri Lankan healthcare budget goes to mental health and that that’s spent solely on medication. There’s no funding for any kind of psychological therapies such as CBT and so people with mental illnesses are just sort drugged up and left in the wards. It was clear that simply being there and engaging with the patients made a huge impact.

How has your course helped you for your role?

To be honest, I don’t think a vast amount of psychological knowledge was really needed for the placement. I mean obviously psychological knowledge helped and it linked in with stuff I’ve learnt in lectures but I think anyone would be able to do the volunteering I did as long as they were good at working with people and good at teaching. But as a psychology student I guess I appreciated what I learned from the work a lot more and was able to link it with my uni work.

How did you find the internship?

The volunteering placement was probably the most amazing and rewarding things I’ve ever done. I had to completely throw myself out of my comfort zone and adapt to a new way of live extremely quickly. On the placement, you live with a local family and are treated exactly the same as how they treat their children. That means having your legs and shoulders covered at all time, eating the food they cook with your hands, having the same curfew as their children and using public transport. This is amazing as it means you get true insight into what life in Sri Lanka is really like and you really get to appreciate the culture. The volunteering side of things was amazing too. Unfortunately, mental illness is still highly stigmatized in many developing countries such as Sri Lanka and being able to have a real impact on the lives of those suffering from mental illness was truly amazing.

What was your most favourite and least favourite part of the experience?

My most favourite part of the placement was working with children with special needs. I love working with children anyway and the children in Sri Lanka were incredibly polite and appreciative. The weekends were definitely a highlight too. As you only work Monday to Friday the weekends are yours to do whatever you want with. Each weekend the other volunteers and I would travel to different parts of Sri Lanka and explore. This was great as it meant the placement was a good mix of work experience and actually having fun. My least favourite part of the placement was the training week at the beginning. I know it was necessary but sitting in long talks all day when you’re incredibly jet lagged is the last thing you want to do. But that was only a minor problem and like I said, the training sessions are necessary.

What do you think you gained from this experience?

I learned so much from the experience I honestly don’t know where to start. Just seeing what mental health care is like in the developing world was such an eye-opening experience, I honestly didn’t even realize things were still as bad as they are. So being able to make even a small difference was honestly so rewarding. Another large part of the experience was getting to truly experience what life in Sri Lanka is really like. By living like a local and commuting to ‘work’ each day you get to see a side of the country that you don’t get to when travelling. It was honestly an amazing experience.

How do you think this experience will affect your future career?

To be honest, I’m not sure if a career in a clinical setting is really for me. I mean I’m sure work experience in another country would look great on anyone’s CV and open up some opportunities, but being a clinician doesn’t really appeal to me that much. I more wanted to gain work experience and improve the lives of others while being able to do some travelling too – which is what the placement allows you to do. But obviously the placement will provide invaluable experience and knowledge to anyone interested in being a clinical psychologist or any other kind of clinician.

Would you recommend this internship to others? Why?

Absolutely without a doubt. It was genuinely the most amazing thing I’ve ever done and I can’t even begin to explain how much it taught me. I learned so many lessons, which apply to so many areas of life, not just academic. The only thing I would say is that you’re definitely ‘thrown in’ at the deep end in the sense that you live like a local and obviously the living conditions aren’t amazing – and so if you’re looking for a holiday, this placement isn’t for you.

If you are interested in a volunteering internship with SLV Global, visit their website for more information about each placement, reviews and FAQs:

For a little taste of what your placement could look like, check out their Instagram: slvglobal

But don’t be fooled, while it looks like a beautiful holiday, it is not! The volunteers work hard, they just happen to be in beautiful places.  

The placements are generally one month long, with no application deadline. However, placements are distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis, and at the date of this interview it is already at 75% capacity. You can easily apply online by filling out a short form on their website. If your application was successful you will be invited for a short phone interview to evaluate which placement is the right fit for you.  

Good luck!

This interview was conducted and transcribed by Clara Meyer-Horn. She is a member of the Bugle Team. 

Note: there is a placement fee, varying depending on the length and the programme you choose.