A Psychology & Mental Health Volunteer’s Experience in Ghana

From the moment I set foot in Ghana, I was beyond excited. I instantly fell in love with the country and its people. 

This placement allowed me to open my eyes to how other cultures perceive mental health and illness. As psychologists, our primary role is working with human beings, so exploring societies and cultures outside the West is so important to help you build a better understanding of the people in general. 

Settling In and First Impressions

The volunteer compound was beautiful, complete with fancy tiling that I didn’t quite expect. There was a dining hall but we quickly moved the tables and chairs and most of our meals were enjoyed outdoors, which helped in the heat. 

Visiting the orphanage was an eye-opener. I remember feeling a bit awkward initially, especially around the kids since I hadn’t spent much time with children before. But they were extremely welcoming. It’s a beautiful home and school, and the children all seemed so happy and loving of each other. The next few days were a bit chaotic due to a public holiday, but it was all part of the learning curve.

Learning and Engaging at the Mental Health Clinics

I realised quickly that each facility was run very differently. At Fettah Hospital Mental Health Clinic, mental health nurse Bernise made an incredible first impression with her caring approach to patients. Observing her counsel a patient with bipolar disorder was beautiful and a really educational experience. The patient had come in for more meds and also expressed her concerns about forming relationships while having bipolar. Bernise counselled her on how a diagnosis doesn’t define somebody and that she should still date and seek love! It was amazing and heart-warming to see. 

My experience at Senya Mental Health Clinic was different. It was a much smaller hospital but seemed just as busy upon arrival making it difficult to get settled in. Once I started asking questions and putting myself out there, however, I was able to be more involved and review client case notes which was super interesting.

The Psychiatric Hospital was where I spent the most amount of time, and it was nothing short of amazing.

Making a Difference at a Psychiatric Hospital

My time at the Psychiatric Hospital was phenomenal. It really was a life-changing, eye-opening, heart-wrenching and incredibly rewarding experience. Tony, the coordinator there, was so inspiring, and the level of organization and care at the facility was truly impressive.

I spent the majority of my time in the Nightingale (male assessment) ward chatting with patients, learning the ropes, asking questions to the staff, and generally experiencing what it’s like. 

During my second week, I sat with a few patients who wanted to know more about their diagnosis, bipolar specifically and drew diagrams of the brain, explaining the difference to ‘normal’ how their meds work, and the importance of taking them. 

These ‘few patients’ gradually grew to a group of about 10 that had formed a sitting circle around me. Building this rapport made it a fascinating and rewarding experience to then partake in counselling sessions alongside one of their mental health nurses (they don’t have enough psychs to do all the sessions themselves unfortunately). 

Whilst I mainly observed during my first session with a female patient, I greatly participated in others and by my second week was virtually running these myself! Updating patient records and writing out counselling notes was a great learning experience. I also spent a lot of time in the voluntary rehab clinic, running patient workshops on addiction – what it is, the neuropsychology behind it etc, participating in NA meetings, and generally chatting and exploring topics with the patients.

Enjoying The Culture And Working Alongside Other Volunteers

The other volunteers were very like-minded, with us all being psych students, and we quickly became very good friends. It was great to have others to bounce off, work, and share experiences with.

They were a fabulous group of ladies! I had two weeks on my own and then shared my final two weeks with another lady on an artist residency which was awesome too. Working in such different areas created great conversation and different perspectives, and she and I also became fast friends.

My time alone definitely allowed me to become fully immersed in Ghanaian culture, I felt like a local and only hung out with locals which was a life-changing and amazing experience.

Advice for Future Volunteers

Try and do things the Ghanaian way. 

I loved every second in Ghana, it’s a beautiful country with even more beautiful people. 

My advice to future volunteers would be to be open-minded and to not be afraid to speak up and ask for what you want! 

I gained a lot of respect early on by eating with my hands and learning to do things as the locals did. Lean in as much as possible, engage, learn some of the local language (Twi or Fanti mainly), and treat every opportunity as a new experience. Even ‘merdaci’ (‘thank you’) will allow you to be so much more accepted into the community.

It’s okay if you’re uncomfortable at times, it’s all about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and opening your eyes to a whole new culture and way of life. 

Say yes to every opportunity – I often found myself in the deep end, whether with workshops I gave at the orphanage or patient questions in the hospitals. If you put aside your anxieties, you learn to swim very quickly!

As a student, wearing scrubs and inevitably standing out in your clinical settings, you will feel like an imposter at times.

It’ll pass. You’ll make more of an impact than you could possibly imagine. 

Share your knowledge, even if you don’t think it’s much. 

Ask questions. For the love of the gods, ASK QUESTIONS. 

Dancing will get you a long way in Ghana.

Looking Back On The Volunteer Programme

Overall this was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had and Ghana was the 36th country I’d travelled to. 

Working with Vocational Impact was awesome. Everyone at the projects, (Zazu in particular) were beautiful, kind, and just brilliant people. 

I felt so at home and comfortable in both Senya and Cape Coast and that wouldn’t have been possible without the people on the ground. 

Doing this program was an automatic ‘in’ to the local way of life; you live with locals, eat local food, and have doors open to you in multiple different hospitals (placements) and homes. That would have been impossible without the knowledge and connections of Vocational Impact and Arms Around the Child.

I felt alive and purposeful and so grateful every single day. There is dancing and singing and laughing to be heard on every street, no matter the time, no matter the occasion. 

International volunteering gives you cross-cultural experiences and understandings of your subject field – learning and applying your psych knowledge outside the classroom whilst having an amazing international travel experience – why wouldn’t you want to go?!

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