Macarena Aspiunza is a Spanish psychologist who collaborates with Sisters Hospitallers as a volunteer. For the last four years, she has travelled regularly to Liberia to assist with psychiatric and psychotherapeutic support, accompanied by a productive and pre-work aim to improve the quality of life of the patients.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Macarena Aspiunza Álvarez, graduated in Psychology from the University of Deusto (Vizcaya) in 2005, Master in Clinical and Health Psychology and Master in Legal and Forensic Psychology.
Since when have you worked for the Sisters Hospitallers?
My first contact with the Institution was in 2005, coinciding with the realization of the practices of the master of clinical psychology.In October 2007 I joined the Aita Menni Hospital in Mondragón, where I worked as a psychologist in various fields: long and medium psychiatric stay, psychogeriatrics, intellectual disability and autism. I have also been responsible for the rehabilitation service of the hospital for the past 6 years.
The most enriching aspect is the fact that I can help in human relationships.
What is your job?
Currently, I am responsible for the area of disability and autism, in which we have several units aimed at intervention in cases with serious behaviour alterations and the development of more adaptive behaviours that allow for a future reintegration into the social-community environment. Also, I am the psychologist of the Legal Psychiatry Unit of the Hospital, aimed at people who have committed a crime in the context of decompensation of a serious mental illness. I also conduct expert evaluations, in the criminal, civil and labour fields.
What do you like most about your job and what is the most difficult part of it?
In my professional performance, the most enriching aspect is the fact that I can help in human relationships. However, it is very difficult sometimes as not everyone accepts psychological help, especially when they are not aware of their problems or the associated suffering, not only for them but also for their families and those around them. I do not remember any particularly difficult moment in my professional career, although I would highlight the experience in Liberia as something very special, something I had never experienced before.
How many times have you been in Liberia as a volunteer?
It is the fourth year that I have travelled to Liberia as a volunteer, thanks to the opportunity that the Sisters have given me as well as Mikel Tellaeche. During all this time, the team of volunteers has been defining the most appropriate intervention plan and adjusted to the reality of the country.
Since the beginning of the ‘We are like you’ project, we have been very aware of the intervention through rehabilitation activities; providing not only psychiatric and psychotherapeutic support, which of course is necessary, but an occupation with a productive and pre-work objective. This is close to their day to day routine and, meaningfully integrated to their lives, trying to provide them with an improvements to in their quality of life, not only during their stay in the Unit but also upon discharge – to avoid relapses.
The attention to one of the most disadvantaged groups is a further reflection of the values of this Institution.
You are responsible for the horticulture project that is being carried out in Liberia. What does this project mean for patients?
We think that therapeutic horticulture could be a good tool. Through the use of plants, many activities can be developed to actively or passively ensure the well-being of patients and performance in an occupational environment that favours the development of attitudes that allow the integration of women with mental illness in the community environment.
What benefits does it bring?
Numerous studies highlight the benefits of this activity, among which the following can be mentioned:
At the cognitive level: improvement of vocabulary and communication skills; awakening of curiosity; observation capacity; and complete sensory stimulation (sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste).
- At the social level: improved interaction within groups and with members outside the group; and greater consideration towards oneself and other people; It allows integration into the community environment by bringing the person to the pre-professional world and professional training.
- On an emotional level: decreased anxiety and stress, and conflicting behaviours; development of self-esteem, satisfaction and feeling of achievement; improvement in the management of frustration and anger, improvement in intolerance to frustration; ability to assume responsibility and an increased feeling of well-being.
- On a physical level: the development and improvement of fine and gross motor skills and coordination; maintenance of physical activity objectives; increased outdoor activity and exercise; acquisition of healthy eating habits and reduction of obesity, etc.
Do you think that the right steps are being taken to change the situation that many people with mental health problems live in?
It has not been easy, but year after year and with the efforts of the Sisters, the unit’s assistance team, and the volunteer team, the project has been developed, with therapeutic horticulture being one of the latest contributions made.
Unity is a small part of the change that must occur in the situation experienced by many people with mental illness in the country. There is still a lot of work to be done to improve the culture regarding this area and the fight against stigma.
How do you value that experience, which has contributed to both your personal and professional development?
I consider being able to be part of this project to be one of the most enriching experiences of my life both at work and especially on a personal level. Knowing such a different reality allows learning that directly impacts the way one sees life.
How do you think you are contributing to the hospital mission?
I had never travelled to Africa before. Liberia was my first experience. It seems unbelievable that 4 years have passed since then, and every time I go I cannot avoid the emotion when seeing that all the effort on the part of the Sisters, the assistance team and the volunteers, continues to bear fruit. The attention to one of the most disadvantaged groups in the country is a further reflection of the values of this Institution and the hospital mission that we all carry out every day.