Volunteering overseas – is it for me?

João Marçal Grilo, Mental Health Nurse & Founding Director of Jaya Mental Health

In the mid 90s and whilst backpacking across India, I volunteered in a hospital for 3 months, helping local nurses care for homeless men, women and children suffering from physical and mental health problems. This unforgettable experience was one of the many reasons why I chose to become a nurse.

I trained in the UK and worked in community mental health care settings across the Southeast of England for several years. Subsequently, in 2011 and pushed by my constantly itchy feet, I moved to Sri Lanka, where I worked as a volunteer dementia nurse consultant for almost two years.

Volunteering overseas made me understand how privileged I was for having worked in the NHS; With all its flaws and imperfections, our healthcare system offers an array of professional and learning experiences that are rarely available to our nursing colleagues working in world areas where human and logistical resources are limited. This experience also made me think about the potential role UK-trained nurses can have in supporting nursing practice overseas and in building more equitable health care systems both home and abroad.

Above all, volunteering taught me that we have lots to share and learn from each other. When as nurses we engage in volunteering, we grow as professionals and as individuals. It is one of the most effective and powerful mechanisms for exchanging ideas and resources, and for prompting positive change in healthcare provision. At the same time, exposure to new challenges and approaches to health care overseas offers returned volunteers the possibility of contributing to a more expert, robust and creative NHS and social care workforce.

However, opportunities for nurses to volunteer in low income countries are rare, particularly in mental health care settings. That is one of the many reasons why I decided to found Jaya Mental Health (JMH), a UK-charity (registration number 1159008) dedicated to improving the lives of people affected by mental illness in South Asia through the training and professional development of local nurses and community workers.

Jaya Mental Health is one of the few nursing led organisations dedicated to supporting the education and professional development of our nursing colleagues in areas where they are most in need. Our work is underpinned by three core beliefs:

  1. A well informed healthcare workforce is one with the ability to improve service delivery and quality of life of those affected by ill health.
    2. Sharing and exchanging knowledge, information and resources is central to empowering others and our own professional and personal development.
    3. Healthcare professionals are in a leading position to instigate change and to transform practice at home and abroad.

Most of our activities focus on direct mental health care delivery to some of the world’s most isolated communities and on building the capacity of local nursing and community carers’ workforces. Our current projects range from training female community health volunteers in the highlands of eastern Nepal, to running free mental health walk-in clinics in remotes areas of the Himalayas, training inpatient nursing staff in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, working with children and young women victims of trafficking and severe forms of abuse, etc. Nurse volunteers are key to the success of all our projects and activities.

As a resourceful, skilful and highly adaptable workforce, nurses can be true catalysts of change; through their expertise and knowledge exchange platforms such as the ones developed by Jaya Mental Health and others, UK trained nurses can support the professional development of colleagues working in low and middle-income countries and gain new skills and abilities essential to the success of the NHS. Numbers of practice development programmes overseas in which UK nurses can participate remain small, and more funding is required to ensure the sustainability of existing ones. Nevertheless, nurses are working for change. It is a slow process, but one which can be achieved with the help of all.

If you would like to find out more about our work and how to join Team Jaya, visit our home page www.jayamentalhealth.org.uk and get in touch via [email protected] – we would certainly love to hear from you.

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