Morgan Mead, 24, shares her experience of volunteering in Reykjavik, Iceland.
As I write, I'm over halfway through my project. My placement is at VIN, a small house intended for those with mental health issues, particularly schizophrenia. The idea is that it provides a place to socialise, use computers, cook, take part in subsidised cultural activities and so on, to break the isolation that having mental illness can sometimes bring.
My role there is mainly social, and I am essentially there to talk with the guests, do a little cooking once or twice a week, help out with any cleaning in the house, and lead or get involved with any small groups or activities. As an example, I run a (very small!) baking group once a week, and also bring my laptop to work so that guests can play music of their choice.
I also started a long-term project where guests are audio-recorded talking about their experiences of the mental health system in Iceland, and about how schizophrenia has affected their lives.
For the guests at VIN, having a volunteer there breaks up the routine in a positive way, especially a volunteer from another country. Some of the guests have been teaching me Icelandic in exchange for English, for example.
Being a volunteer had some unexpected benefits. While I had worked with marginalised groups before, I had never had a job that required me to spend 100% of my time interacting with people. This can be incredibly exhausting some days, but has hugely increased my levels of patience and ability to deal with alternative types of behaviour and conversational topics!
It was also refreshing in many ways to not ever be behind a desk, and to learn how to set professional and personal boundaries and know when to cross them and know when to enforce them.
I am available to the guests all day long, and this can be a vulnerable position to be in, especially when their mental health issues can manifest in different ways, such as sexualised conversation topics or lack of personal space awareness. VIN has given me a much more open attitude to difference and alternative types of behaviour, but also the skillset to maturely deal with difficult or potentially uncomfortable sitations.
A sense of humour
I will take away lessons of humility, kindness, patience, openness, and tolerance, as well as the knowledge that a sense of humour is sometimes the most important thing in diffusing tense or difficult situations.
Looking towards the future, I know that volunteering will remain an important part of my life. I will go home knowing that I have the ability and the confidence to move to a new country, start from scratch, and build an incredible circle of friends while living a fulfilled and genuine life - and that is an immeasurable benefit of this experience.