• Katriona Goodsell

Avoiding Voluntourism in the mental health sector: My experience and advice

At the grand old age of 22, I jumped at the chance to go and get experience in the Mental Health sector abroad. The one thing I have been asked the most since then, is how I knew to trust the organisations I did to go and get experience with. The truth of the matter is, I was so desperate to get experience in the field I had just spent 3 long years studying in, and so desperate to travel, that I didn’t think twice about who or where I was going.

Taken during my time in India

Thankfully, my naivety did not negatively impact me, and I have since gone out with some amazing companies to volunteer in countries across Asia and Oceania. However, over the years I have volunteered, it has been put into perspective how and why companies can differ; not just in terms of what they offer, but also with regards their “ethicality.”

Voluntourism wasn’t something I had ever really even considered when I was young. Taking pictures with the children I had worked with abroad had never seemed an issue. It wasn’t until I went out to gain experience and volunteer as a Graduate that I really opened my eyes to what an “ethical” work experience provider could be.

This included things like:

  • Not taking pictures of the patients/students when working with them to respect their privacy and security

  • Not sharing the names of hospitals, psychiatric wards or schools I worked in to protect patients confidentiality

  • Screening volunteers before going out to work to ensure the safety of patients

  • Employing locals and local professionals to make sure you are helping the community itself

I finally found that giving and helping more than I was gaining out of an experience, not only made it so much nicer, but also proved that voluntourism can be so dangerous. The fact that I have ensured that my work experience is gained as an aftermath of providing a service in the countries I work in, has made me all the more keen to continue helping others. And as a result, the dangers of being part of a voluntourism group are minimised. In choosing companies that follow the points I mentioned, I have protected not only my own safety, but that of the community members I am working with. For example, by not posting pictures of patients on Instagram, and by not spreading the names of hospitals and Psychiatric facilities, I am ensuring that these individuals are not stigmatised and singled out in their community. I am able to make sure that they will not be punished for having a mental health concern, and for having come for help. I also value the fact that the companies I have volunteered with screen and interview their volunteers. Thus safeguarding the communities they work with, to make sure their volunteers have a background in the field, a level of understanding and even some previous experience if possible.

I was able to visit some beautiful destinations during my time overseas

So in answer to the questions I was so frequently asked - I know to trust the companies and NGO’s I do based on research of their work in the communities, the way they hire staff, and the publicity of their placements and service users. But not everybody is able to find an NGO to go and volunteer with. And in this day and age, it can be difficult to know which companies to trust and which companies to steer clear of, especially when money and fees are involved.

The best advice I can give - if you can only find “businesses” willing to give you experience in the mental health sector, check to see who they work with. The most ethical company I have volunteered for worked with already established NGO’s, Charities and Government run facilities in that country. That way, if ever the company closed down, or had to stop working in that specific country, it would ensure that the patients were still being looked after by the NGO’s, charities and government facilities. True they might no longer have the help of the business, but neither were any patients being left abandoned and back to square one.

This picture was taken during my visit to Sri Lanka

Also, check to see if there is a charity branch to this small business. Just because they are operating as a business, doesn’t mean they aren’t giving back to the communities they work in in some way. Always check to see where your fees are going - how much is profit, how much goes on your costs whilst volunteering with them, and whether they pay their staff out in country.

So my advice to you is - RESEARCH. You can never ask too many questions before deciding to volunteer with an organisation. And remember that no organisation is going to be perfect, but as global citizens it is our responsibility to ensure that we undertake due diligence when embarking on a volunteering opportunity - whether domestically or internationally. Trust your gut, if something doesn’t seem right, your questions are being ignored or the organisations can’t give you answers, then you must do what you feel is right in that moment.

Read more from Kate here!