Volunteering in the field

While looking for opportunities to help others, Dr Marlene Lee discovered that providing support to people in the places with the greatest need requires a different skillset and mind-set to working in the private sector, with life-changing outcomes

This article was first published in Orient magazine, 27th June 2017


By Dr. Marlene Lee, Volunteer Field Psychologist & Board Member, Médecins Sans Frontières


Becoming a field worker for Médecins Sans Frontières – or Doctors Without Borders – was, for me, a matter of good timing. I returned to Singapore after completing my PhD in the United States, and lectured for a short while at the National University Singapore before moving to James Cook University Singapore to be part of their clinical psychology training programme. I was already contemplating a change by then; training others gave me something more applied to do for a while, but it wasn’t sufficient. I wanted to have a more hands-on experience in helping others. At the end of the day, I decided that I wanted to help people in the places with the greatest need. A friend of mine told me about Doctors Without Borders and I applied to be a volunteer. I was accepted soon after and received my first field assignment to Kashmir, India.


Working in the field is vastly different from professional practice in a place like Singapore. As a mental health officer, you're basically a one-person show, from assessing the needs to kick-starting the program, which would usually involve recruiting the local staff with the right experience, and to train them to deliver the interventions. Doctors Without Borders’ preferred approach is to have the interventions delivered by local counsellors because of language and cultural barriers, but in urgent situations, where there's no time to hire and train, the expats will have to do the work ourselves.


In Singapore, you’ll have a nice room and all the privacy that you require. In the field, we’ve had counselling sessions in barns, or out in the open with just a piece of curtain to give as much privacy as possible.


You also don’t have the luxury of time; when you're out in the field doing crisis counselling you have to think in terms of just one session with that person, because there's a high chance you won't see them again. In the refugee camp in South Sudan there was a constant influx of people; you’d see someone this week and next week they’d be gone, so you really have to focus on how you can help them in a single session.


This hands-on, no frills experience also applies to the other roles. Dr Lim Chin Siah has been on three missions with Doctors Without Borders, and observe that he often feels “more like a doctor” out in the field, where he is able to spend more time focusing on treating patients without the administrative requirements that come with the daily running of large hospitals in a busy city.


Hans Olijve, a logistician, also recalls having to be more direct in his work while out in the field: “In corporate life you have to massage the message a bit better; you can disagree but you can’t be so blunt. But with Doctors Without Borders, I made it very clear. In that environment, you shouldn’t leave any ambiguity in what you do. It doesn’t work if you give false expectations.”


These experiences don’t just stay in the field. The missions I’ve done with Doctors Without Borders – in places like China, Myanmar and South Sudan – have taught me things that now influence my professional practice.



Everyone you meet in the field has a story to tell, and often their story is one of immense devastation and great loss. But you see people picking up the pieces quite quickly and having to move on, because their living circumstances don’t give them the time or the opportunity to sit down and work things out emotionally. So, for example, you've have to evacuate your home because it's all ruined from an earthquake and you're now in a camp for internally displaced people. Everyone in the camp looks out for each other. They know exactly who the children are, and how each child is coping, and everyone keeps an eye out for each other.


As a clinical psychologist, my training had been about learning how to identify, assess and treat abnormal psychological conditions. There’s a strong focus on deficiencies; because our training helps identify gaps, we tend to look more at the negatives and how we can fix them. We don't necessarily look at the existing coping mechanisms, strengths, or the persons’ courage and resiliency. That’s the biggest thing that has changed for me: I learnt very quickly that these things are very important, and they actually do contribute to the person's recovery. Now, even in my conventional psychotherapy practice, I focus a lot on resiliency and empowerment.


All my peers in Doctors Without Borders say that professionals who are thinking about applying to go to the field should do it. It’s not a cliché to say that it’s a life-changing experience. It’s changed my own priorities in life, and taught me not to sweat the small stuff. Things can change in an instant, so I find that people, friends and loved ones are more important to me now, rather than material success and achievements.


“You see how other people work and live around the world,” says Hans. “It gives you an opportunity to work with people from a lot of different nationalities, different cultures. And in the end, you realise that people everywhere are just the same. They want a house, they want food and electricity, and to have a better life and a better future.”



About the author


Dr Marlene Lee is board member of Médecins Sans Frontières Hong Kong. She was a full-time volunteer field psychologist with Médecins Sans Frontières from 2007 to 2009. Her missions with the organisation have taken her to India, South Sudan, China, Myanmar and Indonesia. 


About Medecins Sans Frontieres


Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters and exclusion from healthcare. MSF offers assistance to people based on need, irrespective of race, religion, gender or political affiliation. As Médecins Sans Frontières has not been registered in Singapore, donations to the organisation’s causes may be made via the Hong Kong office at https://ssl.msf.hk/donate/en. Aside from doctors, MSF is also in need of non-medical professionals for the efficient running of its medical activities and programmes. For those interested to partner with MSF, kindly visit www.msf-seasia.org.