Psychology in action

Volunteering Abroad, NGO Style

Many psychologists, in seeking to “give psychology away,” look for ways to volunteer their services. Psychologists who wish to volunteer may be interested to know of organizations that serve as a bridge to the world of international NGOs.

By Amena Hassan
Many psychologists, in seeking to “give psychology away,” look for ways to volunteer their services. A growing number are seeking to do that work internationally – by operating with those non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide humanitarian aid, education, training and other activities in support of global well being. Psychologists who wish to volunteer may be interested to know of organizations that serve as a bridge to the world of international NGOs. Two examples of such organizations are SalusWorld and NGOabroad. Each serves to match psychologists with appropriate NGOs, and offers information and guidance about preparing for international NGO work.

SalusWorld matches mental health professionals with international NGOs in need of psychosocial workers. They also provide pre-departure training for volunteers, and conduct workshops and support for those returning from international work. In addition, SalusWorld develops psychosocial projects in support of international humanitarian organizations, provides trauma training for mental health professionals, and offers mental health consultation.

Elaine D. Hanson, a licensed clinical psychologist, attorney, and executive director of SalusWorld came to her position after working in war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina and South Africa. When in those countries, she supervised psychology students working with NGOs and developed the seeds of SalusWorld’s training and support programs. Currently a lecturer at the University of Colorado in Boulder, CO, Hanson described how SalusWorld came about:

“We are a group of clinical psychologists who had experience working with victims of war here in the United States and became seriously concerned about the current status of affairs,” said Hanson. “War is a situation where civilians become significantly impacted and we attempt to help those underserved victims who are affected by it. We’ve become a global society.” Hanson stresses that it is the local authorities or locally based NGOs who are the experts in international contexts. Her group helps volunteers get involved in those situations only with their assistance. “To think that we’re not impacted by what happens to people in other countries is naïve, but we must also understand that we can’t go over there and help out as the ‘mighty experts’,” she emphasizes.

One of the objectives of SalusWorld is to match volunteers with smaller NGOs that usually cannot afford additional staff. SalusWorld attempts to nurture a more personal contact between an NGO and the individuals traveling to that area. Volunteers begin establishing a relationship with the NGO before they even leave the ground (through SKYPE for online, low-cost teleconferences). To accommodate volunteers who cannot leave their careers or income for a lengthy period of time, SalusWorld assignments are generally short, ranging from four to eight weeks.

Hanson has also accompanied fourth and fifth year psychology doctoral students as they have applied their skills abroad. She notes that these experiences have given them knowledge far beyond the classroom and changes lives. “It’s not until they get on the ground and see [the situation] for themselves that they start developing a sense of meaning for what they do. Psychologists are really needed and respected in these instances. I think the students come home more compassionate people, after being out of their comfort zones, with an improved sense of empathy. What they go through is a true immersion program, rather than a tour. They experience everything from learning how a water system works to not really grasping the language. It creates a real sense of self-awareness and a respect for cultural diversity. The experience working with underserved populations in countries torn by war, natural disasters or epidemics, allows a psychologist to witness the meaning of trauma to the citizens of these nations. In the process, people also establish life-long friends and become citizens of the global community.”

Another group facilitating involvement with international volunteer work is NGOabroad. This organization matches skills to international needs and assists professionals and other volunteers to enter international work. Ann McLaughlin, Founder and Director of NGOabroad, is a social worker with 27 years of experience. She turned to international humanitarian work in the early 1990’s in an effort to combine her expertise and a concern for a rapidly changing world environment. McLaughlin leads the effort to match volunteers with projects that encompass everything from working with traumatized refugees to helping women who have been victims of sex trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual abuse.

“We are looking for people with work and life experience and they don’t have to be professionals, though most of them are,” she states. “In working with AIDS orphans or mentoring street kids, I’m happy to have parents and grandparents who are just good with kids.” Her non-traditional approach encourages people to apply from a variety of backgrounds although she also stresses the need for people with skills in psychology, counseling, drama and art therapy. “There are a growing number of initiatives within counseling but they have to be adapted to a country and culture and that’s actually what’s exciting. Some countries may not even believe in talk therapy so how you help them move on makes all the difference. We’re much more focused on the grassroots efforts within a country because that’s really where the rubber meets the road.”

According to McLaughlin, the trend within countries has been leaning towards bottom-up, grassroots activities to solve problems and create much needed social service structures such as schools and hospitals. “When I began my whole examination of what was going on in the world, I noticed how there has been a tremendous trend toward citizens’ taking the initiative, whether that was in Indonesia or Bolivia. You can now see those changes happening from the bottom up where the citizens themselves see something going on and want to do something about it. Every volunteer program that we have was started by the people and was not something that the governments decreed.”

To find out more or for additional information on how to volunteer through these organizations, please visit SalusWorld or NGOabroad: International Careers & Volunteering.Ψ