Volunteers and Psychologists – In One Person

Volunteer psychologists are holding individual sessions, group sessions, movie clubs and team-building trainings at the facilities of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta. Their presence may not only result in positive changes in the lives of clients, but may also strengthen these young people in their role as psychologists.

Some of them have only taken part as observers in group sessions so far. Some of them had the opportunity to put to use what they had learned at the university for the first time. Some of them felt they were thrown in at the deep end, but they somehow managed the situation. Some of them have gained new professional experience working with a target group so far unknown to them. Some of them felt that the positive feedback they had received has strengthened their commitment.

Photo: László Simon Molnár

“The volunteers offer their time and work, but at the same time gain experience and are enriched through the exercise. Most of them become psychologists during the program” – László Simon Molnár, a leader of the program, outlined the situation, which is favorable for everyone involved.

“Joint work for nearly a year strengthens the psychology students’ commitment and prepares them for professional life. There are few opportunities where they can do volunteer work so well-suited to their profession” – added Anett Hunyadi, the other coordinator of the volunteer psychologist program.

So far a total of 45 volunteer psychologists took part in the program, which started two years ago. In the second phase in September 2015, 26 volunteer psychologists took up work and 17 of them completed the program.

The organizers had defined two basic goals. On the one hand they wished to provide adequate mental hygiene assistance to care recipients in their institutions. On the other hand it was important to recruit young volunteers to the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, who could later on join other programs as well.

Tasks undertaken and roles found

“One day we were sitting on the bank of the Danube with a friend” – started her story Nikoletta Szabó. “A homeless man approached us to ask us for money. We sent him away. Three minutes later my friend started looking for money. Perhaps we should have given him some after all. His guilt made me realize how burnt out I was, how far I have come from being able to feel sorry for them. I started thinking about where my humanity had gone.”

“During the program I took care of homeless people in day care” – the young psychologist recollected about her later work. “I talked to clients in the daytime warming rooms and two to three people regularly visited me. I launched the conversational movie clubs in February. I thought that it would do good to watch movies of a certain theme that at some level touched the lives of homeless people as well and we could have a conversation with them following the projection about what we saw.”

Annamária Lovass found the program in a unique way. In February she took part in the Crisis Situations in the Family event of the Coffee To Go program series organized by the Young Maltesers from Budapest. This is where she first heard about the volunteer psychologist program, which she was able to join around mid-time in the annual project.

“I worked as a volunteer psychologist at the Family Shelter of Esztergom, where my main task was providing life coaching to families. Within this framework I talked [to people] individually and held individual sessions for them. My clients included children of all ages and adults; couples and families also visited me for individual consultations.”

Just like Annamária, Dorottya Morva also volunteered in an institution receiving families in need. “I thought a lot about whether I would like to attend to children or adults in the future. Here I could try both. The program reinforced my perception that I could work with children a lot more naturally. The little ones can also communicate nicely what is in their hearts: not necessarily with words, but with symbols, drawings and games. I understand them better and for this reason I can better react in a way that may really be of help to them.”

Beáta Balogh had previously worked for many years as a teacher. At school, she encountered problems which she had to treat not so much as a teacher, but more as a psychologist. This also contributed to her obtaining her qualification as a psychologist. The volunteer work she did for the Family Shelter fortified her determination to use in the future her previous experience and existing knowledge to the benefit of target groups of children, adolescents and families. “My plans for the future include dealing with children as a school psychologist – and the children’s families – for whom progress at school, meeting school requirements and fitting into the school environment cause problems.”

Photo: László Simon Molnár

Challenges and difficulties – indispensable elements of the learning process

Most of the volunteer psychologists had not had a previous opportunity to put themselves to the test in practice, thus for many overcoming initial fears and finding their role as a psychologist posed the greatest challenge at the start of the program. “I learned a lot about the way I worked as a psychologist: I realized what my strong points are, where I need to improve, where my uncertainties lie and what my weaknesses are” – Nikoletta Szabo shared her experience with us.

When asked about difficulties, most of the volunteers emphasized the problems related to dealing with disadvantaged target groups. This is because the uncertainty of making a living is coupled with other psychological problems. “A teenage girl, who was angry with the whole world, had to worry about people at school finding out that she was living in a single mothers’ shelter” – Dorottya Morva highlighted a specific example. “I gradually had to realize that at that point in time it was not my task to deal with her housing needs, but rather to concentrate on psychological issues. At the same time, it was not possible to draw the line between the two, as this was the reason for her anxieties and frustrations, which was again in the field of psychology.”

The challenges motivated the psychologists to be flexible, to adapt and to find solutions. “I learned to use simpler language, I learned what it was like to be the member of a team and I also learned how to act in the capacity of a psychologist in a difficult, problematic and particular environment, such as a residential home” – Annamária Lovass listed the experience she had gained in the institution.

According to Beáta Balogh working with disadvantaged people does not require different knowledge – perhaps a little more attention, understanding and empathy. “The loss of a parent, lack of financial security, dissolution of the family as a protective unit may lead to the development of multifaceted problems. Identifying the causes of problems and their resolution in the case of a disadvantaged child or adult requires much patience.”

The participants received the most help for overcoming any problems at regular supervisory sessions. “There were difficult moments, but as we were a group, we were better able to share the burden” – recounted Dorottya Morva about work carried out in a confidential setting. “If I had a problem, I listened to the others’ opinions. I learned a lot from others’ dilemmas when I thought through how I would react in that given situation. After some time we were even able to turn difficulties into advantages.”

Photo: László Simon Molnár

Finding a sense of reward in work as a psychologist

In addition to solving problems and crisis situations, the volunteer psychologists also had the opportunity to recharge from successful and positive experiences.

Dorottya attended to a short-tempered and aggressive ten year old little boy starting from September, who frequently had fits of temper at school. At the closing session, she requested feedback on their joint work of close to a year. “I have improved a lot in managing my temper and I am a lot calmer now. You helped me in this” – responded the little boy. Besides being appreciated, what really mattered to the young volunteer psychologist was that the reaction was completely in line with the goals she had set. “He is very frustrated and full of anger and aggression. I wished for him to understand that these feelings are natural and that by talking about them or drawing them, his anxieties may ease.”

Annamária received much praise from her colleagues as well. They noticed that clients were completely different after they had talked to her and so between themselves they called their conversations “Annamari medicine”. She got the greatest sense of reward from her clients when even those who were at first reluctant to see her because they were afraid of the unknown, popped up because they had heard from each other how good it was to have a conversation with her.

What should be the way forward?

The second phase of the program closed at the end of June. Evaluation and replanning are currently taking place so that the third year of the volunteer psychologist program may be announced with renewed zest in August.

“For me, this program compares to when the sun rises” – Anett Hunyadi expressed her feelings using a metaphor. “This is a process that lasts several hours and it is gradual. With the first program a thin ray of light appeared in the vast darkness. The sun is now crawling ever higher and the light is increasing.”

László Simon Molnár would compare the program to reaching the finish line in a running race. “Everyone has come a long way compared to where they began: the psychologists have changed, learned and grown a lot. Good practices have evolved during those two years that we will continue to strengthen further on. We will visit locations where clients are motivated or can be motivated.”

And what kind of attitude do the volunteer psychologists need to have? Openness, motivation, enthusiasm, love of the profession and people, ability to resolve problems, good communication skills and resourcefulness – were the most valued characteristics listed by Anett.

Beáta Balogh would primarily recommend the program for those who wish to selflessly help others, work as a psychologist, gain experience and grow. “Those participating in the program are able to get to know a peculiar, socially sensitive environment with which they otherwise would not come into contact but which can be considered essential for their professional development.”

“Humility and openness are needed, when we turn our attention to vulnerable groups” – says Nikoletta Szabó. “Prejudices have to be let go and we have to show genuine interest in the given person – no matter if he is a 5 year old Romani little boy or a 60 year old homeless man.”

 Réka Szakszon

Translated by: Judit Varga