Tips for Interns/Volunteers looking to get into the mental health space

12:42:00 PM

The sunset and waves in Kilifi spoke to me and Phil caught me doing a quick note on my BlackBerry 

Hey hey beautiful people,

Hope you are loving your week.

Been out of town, reconciling a few things, getting direction and clarity on a few more (you all know I will share once I am done processing) and widening my cheeks and waistline (that wasn't on the main agenda but it is a notable outcome). Still on that outcome vibe, today's blog post is an outcome of what is becoming a common question in my inbox - tips, skills, tools for interning/volunteering in the mental health space.


In the past, I have done call outs for volunteers and before I became a nomad, I once operated an office space with a staff of 5 that included interns and volunteers through different stages. I will work on a post that covers the hosting side of life - tips for hosting or working with interns/volunteers - I definitely made some mistakes and good scores that I'd love to share. In this post, I will be highlighting a few tips for those who'd like to work in the mental health space as interns/volunteers.

If the tips make sense and you want to try them out, here are some organisations in the Kenyan mental health and epilepsy space worth checking out.

Tips and Tools

  1. Have an idea on either area(s) of interest or expertise/skill set or both. I know you have a fancy CV (or not) but take a few minutes to make a side list of your expertise/skill sets (doesn't matter if you have worked in the field forever or never worked or schooled for it, everyone has something to offer. Ask yourself which aspect of mental health you want to explore (treatment, social, communication, human rights, legislation or any other)...it doesn't hurt to answer where (city or rural areas, specific towns or countries) and why, why mental health? Why Kenya or wherever you want to do it? Why that aspect of mental health? Armed with answers to the above makes it a little easier to know which organisations and projects to approach and make a case of what you'd like to offer. Knowing where and why will also help fuel you when you are stuck with 'impossible people or situations' Plus there is nothing as amazing as getting a straight forward email with two lines of introduction, name, where you are from, current or outstanding engagements and two lines of ask, i'd like to help with social media strategy and do short films for your programs, for the next two months (because of social media will help your organisation to abc or the films will promote xyz...) find attached CV or links to previous projects. Looking forward to hearing from you.
  2. Be self sufficient (didn't find a better phrase for this) An organisation can loooove what you will be bringing to the table but see you as an additional cost which their budget and human resource cannot accommodate at the time of your ask, especially if you are doing an unsolicited ask...they might look at the time taken in orientation by a staff member who'd otherwise be doing something else in addition to your transport and lunch and think it won't be worth it at the moment. Some organisations have a budget line for such 'occurrences' and cover transport, lunch and a stipend while others do not. It doesn't hurt to have some of those things figured out from your end before hand, be self sufficient - have your own laptop, know how to get your lunch and transport and upkeep money while interning/volunteering so that you aren't calling for off days almost everyday because you can't figure out how to go to the office.
  3. Have an agreement (word of mouth doesn't count) This one has gotten me into trouble a number of times. Once you and your host organisation have agreed on what you will be working on and terms on various things, it would be wise to have an agreement, in writing, outlining your role and length of engagement as well as extension and termination process from either sides, compensation if any, if you can work other jobs especially if you aren't reporting daily, engagements in other activities that aren't your core activities (organisations - private, public, for profit, non profit, all of them - are notorious for 'overusing' interns and volunteers). Once you have it on paper, make sure you have it signed and have a copy. If the organisation is slow at this, draft one and share and keep pushing till its signed. This can be the one pager than gives you so much peace of mind.
  4. Explore other areas. Mental health is a broad, wide, deep sector where things interfeed...treatment relies on public awareness, multisectorial engagement and the cycle goes on and on. As much as you might know what specific area you want to deep dive in, more insight can be gained by exploring other areas...if your area of interest is treatment, interning or volunteering with hospitals and improving that experience for people is good but also have some time to attend community awareness events to further understand where else people get their treatment if any at all‎ and why they don't go to hospitals.
  5. ‎Beginners Mind and Be Present. Regardless of where you are coming from, phd school, 'developed country', tutored by who's who in mental health space or never work in the space before, it is always good to come with a beginners mind, a blank sheet just to first absorb and learn the current system and why it is as it is, before filtering the urgent needs and how to collectively work them out instead of getting all diagnostic from the word go. More often than not, people view change as something to resist and this beginners mind moment is a time to learn the culture of the organisation you are interning or volunteering for which will come in handy when you start making proposals and suggestions...also ask about the current needs of the organisation. A lot of interns and volunteers have amazing ideas that most of the time end up as patches that are later discarded and the beginners mind approach helps know how to make an impact that lasts or one that becomes the foundation of something impactful...pressure aside, you don't necessarily have to have a solution, just be there, be present, learn, absorb.
  6. Take care of your own mental health. One big irony is that most people and organisations working in mental health, take care of their own mental health last if they do at all. It is natural to want to take up every job and non job (like making tea and fetching water for staff or doing their personal errands), you draw your own line on this depending on your why, but one thing you need to always hold high, above it all, is your mental health. Take breaks, do other activities away from work - even if it is mental health work - walks, hikes, DIY, trash TV if that's your thing, meditation, reading...whatever makes your mind smile do it as often as possible.

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