Hi, if you’re reading this you might be interested in volunteering abroad or doing something completely out of your comfort zone. But you’re worried… Why? Perhaps like me, you have a pre-existing mental health illness and you’re not sure how you will adapt. On reflection doing something like volunteering abroad in Ghana is probably simultaneously the best and worst thing you can do if you have a mental health condition. Before I get into the why, I want to clarify that everyone is different, everybody reacts to situations differently and that’s why being honest with yourself and with others is crucial! I was once at a conference in London in which one of the speakers said, “Your disability is your greatest strength” so embrace it and you might find that your struggles pay off in the long run.
“Your disability is your greatest strength”
My time in Ghana in many ways was life-changing. I learned to live with and value a different culture, to be grateful and to let my actions speak much louder than any words I could muster. The main challenges I faced living in Africa were shared by many of my fellow teammates from the UK: being the minority and facing the stereotypes that go with that, the awful traffic and slow transport links and a pace of life much slower than back home with obstacles you would never imagine. In response to this, I gained patience, empathy, and a sharper more inquisitive mind.
Having a mental health condition threw new challenges into the equation.
Before volunteering abroad…
I personally recommend that if you have a diagnosed mental health condition, that you should be open to discussing it with your organisation. Here are my tips on being open: –
Find employers or volunteering abroad organisations that are committed to developing your potential.
If an employer isn’t able to accommodate you because of a pre-existing medical condition this isn’t something that should set you back. Agencies will do all that is in their power to offer you the additional support you require.
(This is just life advice… I know this not to be the case with the organisation I worked with, Challenges Worldwide)
Let others help you to be exceptional!
Therefore, if you find an organisation that is committed to supporting you and wants you to work with them for summer or post-graduation, then telling them how you see life differently and how you might need to be supported is only going to make things easier. Why? Because they can prepare and provide additional support that is relevant to you.
When I reached out, a medical professional assessed me to see if I was fit for a trip to Ghana. Once I had passed the medical examination, the Team at Challenges Worldwide were in constant contact, passing on specific advice from the in-country team and ensuring any of my questions were answered. This calmed my nerves and made me confident I would not only make an impact but also be able to enjoy myself in the process.
Being open from the start makes it easy for all parties to make the best decisions based on your individual needs.
I was fully open about my depression and anxiety and I pointed out that I get panic attacks so I need a roommate that wouldn’t be freaked out by this and that exercising regularly curbs my depression massively. This meant when Challenges were picking a roommate I landed with Quaye, a gym fanatic that was also very chilled. We lived in a host home that was 2 minutes walk away from the nearest gym… Ideal! Quaye also became my personal trainer, when all you’re eating is carbs having someone to push you goes a long way!
You don’t need to tell everyone, being open is very much on a need to know basis.
This means you don’t need to share your entire life story either. A simple heads up that you have a mental health condition and might need XYZ or are worried about ABC, informing to team members or staff that need to know is more than enough. Obviously, if you want to open up to friends on the programme then do, having support from the people you spend the most time with can be incredibly helpful.
Facing my fears and taking the plunge!
I took a big step outside my comfort zone when I volunteered abroad. The feeling of having no idea what is going to happen can be stressful and it’s okay to have fears or doubts. The important thing is to not let this hold you back from experiencing something new.
“It is not the meaning of life we seek but the feeling of being truly alive”
Here is a video from Will Smith on Fear that shows you that being fearful is natural but it can also stop you living your life to the absolute fullest…
My advice is that you will learn so much more by just going for it if you have prepared yourself physically and mentally by completing all the necessary health checks and clarifying your doubts with the staff of the volunteer organisation. In saying this there will always be unexpected events that happen whilst you are in-country on placement so here are some more tips on how to tackle the unexpected:
- Ask plenty of questions throughout your journey, volunteer organisations such as Challenges Worldwide have been doing these programmes for several years now and can offer guidance and advice for many of your queries. Get to know the other volunteers and your host family and what makes them tick, it’s likely you will find a common interest.
- Be humble and keep an open mind. Most volunteers, myself being one, start off with goals that can be somewhat over ambitious. We think we are going to Africa to make a difference and although in many cases this is true, in reality, it is Africa and the experience that makes an impact on us. Be open to absorbing and learning from all the unique experiences you might come across.
- Let go, let go of control and accept the situation for what it is. If you face a challenge with an open mind, you’ll think laterally. Accept, and overcome cultural differences, providing unique solutions to your work and life.
- Understand Empathy – Try to see things from others’ perspectives! All too often we get wrapped up in our own thoughts and feelings and fail to see or accept another’s point of view. Understanding different perspectives will infinitely improve your communication style and help you resolve potential conflicts.
- LEARN ALL YOU CAN! You will be surprised at how much downtime you get due to the slower pace of life and business in such countries but it’s important not to waste a minute! There is lots of analysis to do for your businesses but thinking so narrowly can be dangerous so I encourage you to think of other African industries and businesses. I would also advise you to follow your curiosity and read as much as you can in as many areas that may interest you.
- Exercise regularly or try meditation as it really helps keep a clear mind and has really helped me stop my negative thought spirals and lessen the frequency of my panic attacks à Watch one of our many workouts – filmed at 5.30am!
- Try new things – Too often, daily life back home becomes a routine. You’ll only be in this country for 12 weeks so make the most of it! Try the different varieties of food, enjoy the hot weather and the cold showers 😉
What to expect when volunteering abroad…
- I told you earlier that my volunteer organisation, Challenges Worldwide will help you – but they won’t hold your hand for the entire 3 months. There are some things that you just must get on with by yourself. This can be hard at first but great for developing independence.
- You may be challenged by different ways of living. For instance, there will be occasions where you must eat in the dark. Or you are restricted when you can leave and enter the house due to the strict curfew… this is very unlike the UK but is in place for your safety (to make the most of my days I did as Ghanaian’s do… I got up earlier and slept earlier)!
- You will learn Patience…The pace of life is much slower and traffic can be quite bad so getting anywhere could take you up to 3 hours. It’s a much different speed of life so use your time to observe, learn and reflect.
- You realise that for your whole life there’s been much you’ve taken for granted and little that you need. I went to the hospital and I can tell you it’s got nothing on the NHS but it did the job and made me healthy again! J Transportation – It’s really a unique and initially confusing process but your in-country counterparts will guide you through the process and before you know it it’ll become second nature, so embrace the culture and lifestyle in your host country!
- Challenges Worldwide have rules of where you can go and what time you should be home by etc. This is for your own safety but it can be frustrating especially when you get depressive episodes or anxiety attacks. My advice would be to get out of the house early and try to explore your local area, get to know the women at the markets, this will make where you live feel homelier, leave the laptop work till the evening (unless you don’t have electricity in which case chat with your housemates and debate interesting topics)
- Curb homesickness by calling your family and friends on WhatsApp once or twice a week to tell them about all the exciting adventures you are having as well as anything you are struggling with!
Overall, you will be surprised at what maintaining an open-mind will achieve. Making the most of your overseas volunteering is essential – this is a life tip – you should be making the most of every single day J Be open and honest with your organisation and find solutions that work for you because we all know that everyone is different! Lastly, enjoy each and every moment and do something each day that scares you because if you don’t, one day you may live to regret it.
Written by Jack Fellows, Challenges Worldwide ICS Alumni, Graduate and founder of The Social Mercenary
Jack took part in a UK Government funded International Citizen Service with Challenges Worldwide. Challenges Worldwide are a Scottish International Development charity who work to support people and businesses in developing countries by unlocking potential and connecting them to opportunities for growth.
If you would like to find out more about the work of Challenges Worldwide or re interested in volunteering abroad visit challengesworldwide.com. We have placements to work with businesses in Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda or Zambia!