When too much is enough

I honestly think every week that passes here is the equivalent to a month passing at home. So much happens that when I sit down to write about it, it seems almost futile to try and explain everything that’s gone on in seven days, because it feels like it’s been seven years.

What do you mean? Well, for starters, I left my NGO on Wednesday, and I left Greece today.

What the heck? Didn’t I come all the way over here to do refugee work? Didn’t I just write in my last post that I was looking forward to bringing long-lasting change to Moria camp by spending a whole month here?

Yes, and yes. But at the end of the day, I still made the (really tough) decision to leave early.

I’ve struggled a lot with how to write about what happened. More importantly, though, I’ve struggled with how to articulate it in a way that doesn’t detract from the real issue here (e.g. the refugee crisis, not my own personal problems) while also being honest about my particular experience. It’s always a balance: be honest, but not too honest. Don’t sugarcoat what’s happening, but don’t rant and rave unnecessarily on a public platform. Talk about your personal experience, but don’t turn it into an egocentric diatribe.

Exhibit A: I’d initially written this post as a explicit critique of why I left my NGO, outlining in great detail the management flaws, the unsafe practices, and so on (e.g. it was a total rant-fest). I emailed the draft to my dear writer friend to look over earlier this week. “Well…it’s good”, she emailed back, somewhat hesitantly. “But maybe you’d consider sprinkling in some of the more positive things you experienced? I don’t think you mentioned in your entire post even how many days you were there”.

And, of course, she was 100% right.

Nobody wants to read about the gory details of my experience here without looking at the bigger picture. And her words highlighted an important lesson I’ve been learning (the hard way) during my time here: our experiences are almost completely dictated by how we perceive them. If you harp on the negative experiences in your life, then you can walk away from them having had a terrible time, licking your wounds and feeling sorry for yourself. But if you actively CHOOSE to focus on the growth that those negative experiences bring about, you can walk away with some powerful lessons about yourself…including how you deal with things when sh*t hits the fan.

So, in short, I left my NGO (names removed) after 12 days because of organizational mismanagement that led to an ineffective and unsafe clinical practice environment. I’ll spare you most of the gory details, but above all, the mental health of everyone- the volunteers, the coordinators, the refugees – appears to be given little thought here. The NGO coordinators seem to have been undertrained when they took on leadership roles and were overworked until they burned out, which now results in fits of rage and abuse (of many different kinds) towards volunteers and an emotionally unsafe environment. The volunteers, in turn, are undertrained and overworked until THEY burn out, which results in many volunteers leaving much earlier than originally planned. And that’s what happened to me. Without my knowledge until it was almost too late, after getting criticized by leadership one day for something I had no control over after an already terrible day, I hit my breaking point. And I burned out…complete with my first full-blown panic attack in almost a year. And it was a bad panic attack. The kind where you can’t breathe and you get tunnel vision and you feel like you’re going to die. The kind that makes you reassess what the h*ll you’re doing with your life, and if your mental health is worth it all.

That’s why I left. It got to a point where all of it became too much…and if my mental health REALLY suffers that much, then how can I provide good care to others? If I don’t take care of myself, I’ll be just another burned out worker here. And at the end of the day, who suffers the most in that scenario? The refugees I work with. They will suffer the most by receiving substandard healthcare from a burned out healthcare provider…and they deserve so, so much better than that.

One of the lessons that I’ve always known intellectually, but never embodied as acutely as I am now, is this: our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and that needs to be talked about, even if it makes people uncomfortable, on every front. Mental health is still a taboo subject in many parts of the world, and even our Western society still doesn’t talk about it enough. Just admitting that I had a complete emotional breakdown is hard to write out here and share with the world. I think about it like this: if I had a heart attack, no one would bat an eyelash at me leaving my NGO post early. Somehow, though, because I left for mental health reasons, I feel like I’m opening myself up to more criticism for some reason. But that’s crap. Without our mental health, we cannot be productive in life. We cannot be our best selves. We cannot give ourselves to others without first looking inward and taking care of our own business. And I have to practice what I preach, and take care of my own mental health before taking care of others’.

I’ll bring this post back around to the needs of the refugees I worked with, as I think THEIR needs should be the primary focus of this post…and their mental health is suffering to a degree that is completely intolerable. Particularly in Moria camp, refugees’ mental health needs are undervalued so much that they’re almost completely ignored. I’ll give you an example.

Moria clinic provides care for over 3000 refugees, and sees upwards of 70 patients per 8-hour shift. While we see many, many medical emergencies, the vast majority of our patients are in desperate need of mental health services and psychological support. But these services are almost nonexistent. For example, we were explicitly told by our field coordinator we were to “spend 10 minutes maximum for mental health cases”, since “medical problems are the focus” of the clinic. However, in the same breath, we were told that mental health services were ONLY available through Doctors Without Borders for…and I’m not kidding you here…refugees with a history of rape or torture who are ALSO suffering from acute psychiatric distress or suicidal ideation. There isn’t enough funding and aren’t enough mental health providers for other people to be seen for psychiatric needs. So, if you were raped or tortured and you fail to disclose to your MD/NP that you’re suicidal or in acute psychiatric distress (keeping in mind that many of our patients come from cultural backgrounds where to admit the above means you’re “crazy”), then tough luck. No mental healthcare for you.

The point is, there’s not enough funding or resources to even remotely begin to address the mental health needs this clinic has, and the ones that suffer most are refugees who are left with essentially NO psychological support. And we all deserve to have our mental health prioritized…the refugees in Moria camp, you, me, the NGO coordinators, all of us. Without our mental health in order, we are not whole. We cannot be well in mind, body, and spirit without addressing our mental health needs and nurturing them.

Even though I’ve left my NGO, I don’t want stop advocating for quality healthcare in refugee camps, particularly for increased access to mental health services now that I’ve seen just how terrible access is. Maybe, instead of providing individual medical care, the most important thing I can do right now is to increase awareness. To increase awareness of what’s going on here with the refugee crisis. To increase awareness of the critical, absolute importance of mental health services. To reassure anyone whose mental health is suffering that we are all vulnerable to a breakdown when too much is too much.

Wrapping this up, though, I’ll end on a positive note. This has honestly been the most challenging travel experience of my life, but it’s also taught me more than I ever expected. And, I think ending with some of these lessons is a good way to reflect on my personal experience.

Five (random) lessons I learned in during my time in Lesvos:

  1. The refugees I met at both KT and Moria are some of the kindest, most generous souls on this planet. Almost every day we’d hear stories of camp residents asking volunteers to come share meals, cigarettes, etc. with them as thanks for their work. Despite having very little, they were always looking for ways to share what they had with others. That is, for lack of a better term, incredibly admirable. We should all be more like this.
  2. Despite the racial tensions that unfortunately pervade at Moria, I saw some examples of cross-cultural acceptance and love that still bring tears to my eyes when I think about them. During the Moria riot, for example, the brother of the Congolese pregnant woman that was beaten by police (see my last post) was absolutely hysterical, attempting to rush the police. However, an Arab gentleman who was nearby gently took him by the arm and calmed him, likely preventing the brother from also being struck by police. When I saw them a few moments later, the brother had completely broken down in the Arab gentleman’s arms. Despite being from different cultures, different backgrounds, and different continents, these two gentlemen put aside these differences and united in love and emotional support. And that, again, is so, so very admirable.
  3. The other volunteers in Lesvos are fundamentally GOOD people, and I think some of them may be legitimate angels sent from heaven. They showed me their strength and their compassion through innumerable random acts of kindness. For example: a volunteer translator once spent the entire night (after working all day) at the Mytilini hospital with an Arabic-speaking refugee woman, because the woman had no one else to keep her company or translate for her. Personally, numerous volunteers fed me for four days when I first got to Lesvos and didn’t have a way to get to the grocery store, yet they never once made me feel guilty or asked me to pay them back (and let’s be real, we’re all broke volunteers). I strive to be more like these wonderful people…generous and empathetic without expecting anything in return.
  4. A funny one…for some reason, and I have still not figured this out…Greek restaurants love club sandwiches. Like, they LOVE them. Every bar, club, restaurant, hole-in-the-wall, etc. sells club sandwiches, and sometimes only club sandwiches. I have had more club sandwiches in the last 16 days than I have in my entire life…and, to conclude, if I never see another club sandwich as long as I live, that will be too soon. I have realized…I absolutely HATE club sandwiches.
  5. And last, but certainly not least: this experience, while not what I expected or envisioned, was a learning experience nonetheless. Situations like this make you get to know the good, the bad, and the ugly in yourself REAL quick…but I don’t think self-discovery is ever a bad thing, even if it’s painful as hell sometimes. This learning experience has been painful, but as the old yogic saying goes: the beautiful lotus flower only grows out of the pile of cow dung (or something like that).

I’ll conclude with this: if you’re passionate about mental health access for ALL refugees, I beg you to consider donating to MSF (Doctors Without Borders). With more funding, the access to mental health services for refugees in Moria camp can expand. Check them out – http://www.msf.org.

Arrived in Andorra tonight (!), and I’ll write again this week.


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