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‘Doing volunteer work is a life-changing experience’

We speak to Singapore-based clinical psychologist DR MARLENE LEE about her experience as a field worker with international, medical humanitarian aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

Dr Marlene gathering information from the Indonesian search and rescue team in Padang, Indonesia

Originally from Malaysia, Dr Marlene is a US-trained clinical psychologist who has been based in Singapore for the past 12 years. As a field psychologist for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders, which provides medical relief to populations affected by war and conflict, natural disasters, epidemics, social violence and basic healthcare exclusions, she has worked to develop community-based mental health programmes, train and supervise local counsellors, and provide psychosocial support to victims of armed conflict in Kashmir, India, and Yambio, South Sudan. She was also part of the emergency intervention team for the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China, 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, and the 2009 Padang earthquake in Indonesia.

What inspired you to get involved with Doctors Without Borders?

After I completed my doctoral training in the US in 2005, I came to Singapore to take up a lectureship at NUS (National University of Singapore). After about a year and a half, I arrived at a crossroads. Although academic life was rewarding, I often wondered if I could be doing more. I wanted to do something more hands-on – to help people in the places with the greatest needs. A friend suggested that I look into humanitarian aid work and introduced me to MSF. I applied and was accepted as a field volunteer in May 2007. The following month, I left for my first field assignment. And that was the start of my journey with MSF.

What are some of your main duties as a field psychologist?

I have a keen interest in emergency mental health; consequently, all five of my missions with Doctors Without Borders have been in disaster and war or armed-conflict settings. As a field psychologist, I’m responsible for the overall planning, implementation and coordination of the mental health component of our emergency interventions. This includes, among others, assessing the mental health needs in affected areas and developing suitable intervention plans, and training and supervising local para-counsellors to deliver psychosocial support to the affected populations. When it’s not possible to assemble a local mental health team due to time constraints, I work directly with individuals or groups (via a translator for non-English-speaking populations).

Dr Marlene conducting a psycho-education session with Padang earthquake survivors to inform them about traumatic stress responses and self-help coping strategies.

How has your work with Doctors Without Borders influenced your work back in Singapore?

I see clients in my own private practice here in Singapore. As a clinical psychologist, my training had taught me to identify, assess and treat psychopathology (abnormal psychological conditions). Thus, there is a strong focus on deficiencies; my job is to find the gaps and figure out how to fix them. As clinical psychologists, we don’t always prioritise the individual’s existing strengths, protective mechanisms or resilience factors. That’s the biggest thing that has changed for me; from my fieldwork, I’ve seen first-hand how these factors contribute tremendously to a person’s recovery. Now, even in my psychotherapy practice, I place a lot of focus on the resiliency and empowerment of my clients.

How has your fieldwork changed your outlook on life?

People say that doing volunteer work is a life-changing experience. Well, they’re right! I’d like to think that volunteering in the field has made me more grounded and given me a better balance in life. For starters, I’ve learned to always be grateful for what I have and to not sweat the small stuff. Life is short and things can change in an instant, so spending time with loved ones and friends is way more important to me now, rather than material success and achievements.

Doctors Without Borders
Dr Marlene and her colleague make their way to a village swept away by landslides triggered by the Padang earthquake in 2009.

What have been some of the biggest challenges, and how have you adapted your work as a clinical psychologist to different situations?

The biggest challenge in the field for me is the constant uncertainty and unpredictability. It’s common to experience glitches and last-minute changes in plans due to rapidly changing security conditions. For example, in South Sudan we had to evacuate our base in the middle of the night due to security threats.

How do I cope with the uncertainty?

By managing my expectations, reminding myself to stay flexible and keeping an open mind. Working in the field is vastly different from professional practice in a place like Singapore with all the modern amenities. Over here, we see our clients in cosy, quiet offices, with four walls that offer privacy. In the field, we don’t have access to such ideal conditions and we often have to make do with whatever’s available. So, in the past, my team and I have conducted counselling sessions in barns, under coconut trees, or out in the open with a just a piece of cloth to give some semblance of privacy. You also don’t have the luxury of time in the field; so, when you’re doing crisis counselling with an individual, you have to achieve as much as possible in that one session because there is a high chance that you won’t see them again. For instance, in a refugee camp, people are constantly on the move. You might see someone one week and the next week they’re gone, so you really have to focus on meeting their needs in a single session.

Is there one mission that proved the most personally rewarding to you?

That’s a very difficult question, as I find all missions equally rewarding in their own unique ways. What I can say is that my time in the field never fails to remind me about the resiliency of the human race. The survivors I’ve worked with bear remarkable grace and inner strength, and show tremendous courage in the face of adversity. They demonstrate the will and perseverance to overcome their difficulties and challenges, and they remain kind and generous to others despite their own limitations. In the larger scheme of things, bearing witness to this rekindles my faith in humankind.

Dr Marlene educating Padang earthquake survivors.

About Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)

Established in 1971, MSF is an international, medical humanitarian-aid, non-governmental organisation (NGO) – and Nobel Peace Prize recipient – dedicated to providing much needed medical care and humanitarian assistance in war-torn areas and developing countries. The organisation sends out about 33,800 doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, waterand-sanitation experts, logisticians and other aid workers every year to provide free, quality medical aid in multiple continents. MSF aid workers serve in some of the most remote and unstable places in the world in order to reach victims of conflict and violence, natural or man-made disasters, epidemics and pandemics, as well as those who are barred or excluded from access to medical care. To learn more, visit msf-seasia.org.

As MSF has not yet been registered in Singapore, if you live in Singapore and wish, please donate to MSF via its Hong Kong regional office at ssl.msf.hkIf you wish to earmark your donations to the mission in Bangladesh, please write to Lauren Ho, the Singapore Liaison, at lauren.ho@singapore.msf.org for further information.

This article first appeared in the November 2017 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!

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