If the names Freud, Pavlov, Piaget, or Maslow excite you, there’s a chance you’re interested in -- or already studying -- psychology! As one of the most broadly studied disciplines worldwide, it is no wonder that there are lots of diverse opportunities to expand your knowledge on the study of human behavior and the mind. Volunteers can discover firsthand how the study and practice of psychology shifts depending on the culture -- making for some truly unique cultural experiences.
Where to Go
While there are lots of opportunities to expand upon and apply your knowledge in psychology across the globe, there are certain countries where you’ll find more opportunities.
Parts of South Asia are still dealing with the lingering mental and cultural effects of the tsunami in 2004. Sri Lankan populations most affected continue to be psychologically examined and cared for at the individual and community level by locally-trained staff and academics from abroad. This presents a unique learning opportunity for volunteers.
There are placements for mental health and psychology students in clinical settings in Tafo Government Hospital. These setting are a good opportunity for increasing both knowledge of clinical care in psychology as well as understanding the complexity of healthcare in lower-resource settings.
Following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the recovery efforts in Japan are ongoing as coastal communities continue to rebuild and cope with the devastating mental and physical effects of the large-scale disaster. From community work to rebuilding, volunteers can learn a great deal about the psychology of individuals most affected.
Volunteers looking to engage with Indigenous populations can head to Australia. There, world-leading research and community care is helping to combat the health inequalities and stigmas faced by Aboriginals in both rural and urban communities.
It is a bittersweet reality that some of the most impactful opportunities to work in psychology and mental health are often brought about by instances of human loss and suffering (e.g. political unrest, armed conflict, natural disasters, etc.). Fortunately, volunteers can have a profoundly positive impact on the individuals and the communities they work with. There are a variety of settings in which volunteers find psychology-based opportunities:
Community Care Facilities
Working “on the ground” with people in the community is a great way to understand the mindset within different cultures. There are significant differences between urban and rural care settings. This means that volunteers can help to build stronger communities while exposing themselves to diverse learning opportunities.
Academics around the world are always looking for volunteers to help conduct their research. From mental health to the behavioural sciences, there is plenty of resume-boosting work to demonstrate your efforts and interest in psychology.
Many governmental and “teaching hospitals” are accustomed to having students in medicine, nursing, and other health professions gain practical knowledge through patient interaction and patient care.
Volunteering with children continues to hold a significant importance for those looking to work with people and improve the daily quality of life for individuals in need. Principles of basic psychology can be applied through play settings and teaching opportunities.
Planning Your Trip
When you’re planning a volunteer experience with a focus on psychology, you’ll want to consider a few important trip components before you leave. These components include: Choosing a Placement, Personal Reflection, and Travel Logistics.
Choosing a Placement
When choosing a placement, consider the population you plan to work with. Working with children, the elderly, or people with special needs will result in vastly different experiences. Where you want to volunteer and the amount of hours you wish to volunteer is also important. For example, are you interested in a more urban or rural setting?
When choosing the organization, you should consider if there are any fees you’ll need to pay to volunteer there and if there are any organizational checks that need to be conducted, e.g. Local police checks if you’re working with potentially vulnerable populations (children, people with disabilities, etc.). If you’re considering an orphanage, be sure to do your homework on the background of the organization and their facilities.
Consider reaching out to previous volunteers so that you can gain as much information as possible about their experiences before choosing a placement.
As for personal reflection, consider your personality type and the skills you already possess. What skills might you bring to an organization that helps them to achieve their mandate? You should also think about what knowledge or skills you are looking to get out of a volunteer placement. Depending on where you want to go, you might seek out workshops or training sessions to increase your overall knowledge of the local culture and traditions.
One of the most important travel logistics is whether you require a travel visa to enter the country and to conduct your volunteer work. Check Embassy or Immigration websites for the most up-to-date information.
Think about where you will stay in your volunteer country. Are there housing opportunities built-in to your placement or will you have to organize this yourself? Researching the cost of living is a good idea so that you can budget for your overall trip. While volunteering abroad, a large expense can often be food. Are your meals included by your organization or are there kitchen facilities available to you at your place of residence? Knowing these details beforehand can help you have a positive volunteer experience.