10 Aug 2018

“The aim of the We Are Like You project convinced me”

Marta Menéndez is a 29-year-old Psychiatrist from Gijón, Spain, currently working at the St Benedict Menni Mental Health Center in Liberia.

Tell us a little bit about you…

My name is Marta Menéndez, I am 29 years old and was born in Gijón (Spain). Since my childhood, I’ve always been interested in healthcare and biology, in how human beings function.

When I was studying philosophy in baccalaureate, I started to have a real interest in human behaviour and what motivates us, in how our mind works. I started to do some research and read psychology books in order to get an answer to my questions. That’s when I realised I wanted to study Medicine and become a Psychiatrist.

Why did you decide to work at the Step Down Unit?

Once I finished my Psychiatry residency in the hospital of Donosti, I felt the need to stray from the path most of the doctors are forced to follow. I knew the Aita Menni Hospital as it is well-known in the mental health field in Euskadi. Just before my residency was over, I got an email from a doctor I was working with that stated a psychiatrist was needed for a new mental health project in Liberia. As I wanted to do something different to the majority, I didn´t hesitate to contact the coordinator of the project, Mikel Tellaeche. His closeness and simplicity and the aim of the We Are Like You project convinced me.

How is it to live in Liberia like?

The experience is being as enriching and satisfactory as expected, personally and professionally. Getting used to the Liberian mentality was the hardest because we live in the West, in the century of prevention. We are educated to plan, organise and solve problems before we have them. But here, solutions are sought once a problem has come up, with the little human and physical resources that you have.

Thanks to a human, empathetic and supportive treatment, these women can be rehabilitated and have the life they deserve

The positive side is the chance to be immersed in a completely different culture. It makes you more flexible and able to re-think about your own one, you feel less conditioned for what you have learnt as the “norm” since you were little.

How are the patients progressing?

The progress is positive. This is a country with few resources and mental health infrastructures, a country were mentally ill women suffer from physical, sexual and psychical abuse, which would be inconceivable in the West. In that sense, we are achieving results by treating our patients for what they are: humans.

We realised that although the medication is really important, it is only the 10% of everything we do. Thanks to a human, empathetic and supportive treatment, these women can be rehabilitated and have the life they deserve and are able to restore their faith in humankind.

Mental health patients at the St Benedict Menni Heath Center.

Can you tell us about a particular moment that has touched you?

Each one of the patients of the Step Down Unit leaves mark on us. Particularly, I would like to mention E.E., a 35-year-old patient who suffered the consequences of the lack of knowledge about mental illness in Liberia. People around her thought she was wicked, and she was tied to a post by her wrists for months, during which she was beaten and burnt. Nowadays, the scars of the horror she went through are still visible.

When she arrived at the Unit, she used to knee and beg us not to do anything bad to her, promising us she’d behave well. I was amazed by how quickly she got her smile back, one of the most beautiful ones I’ve ever seen.

Mental illness awareness campaigns should be done so that people could understand that it is not witchcraft

I was affected not only by her past but for all the difficulties we encountered during her healing process because she found shelter in her madness –who would like to consciously live in a world that has caused so much pain? After seven months with us, E. is back home, trying to get a business off the ground, with her feet firmly on the ground and her beaming smile.

How do you think people can help to change the situation mental health patients live in?

Like any other problem in society, the root is the lack of education and knowledge. Liberians aren’t bad; they simply don’t know much about mental health. Firstly, a lot of mental illness awareness campaigns should be done so that people could understand that it is not witchcraft but an illness. Only by doing that, we could erase the brutal stigma patients are subject to, which would massively contribute to their recovery. Secondly, like in many other areas, infrastructures and medical care should improve considerably.