Return to InPsych August 2006

By Greg Bell MAPS, National Council for Children, Psychology and Counselling Section, Seychelles

The name ‘Seychelles' elicits images of coconut palms, magnificent sparkling beaches and a carefree life. Places like this are supposed to promote and nurture positive mental health. But the travelling psychologist will know that mental health problems always exist no matter where you go. This tropical paradise is no exception.

Geographically, the 115 islands of the Seychelles cover a million square kilometres of Indian Ocean, lying just four degrees south of the equator. Most of the 80,000 inhabitants are concentrated on the granitic islands of Mahe, Praslin and La Dique. The language is Indian Ocean Creole which evolved from French colonial days; but French and English are spoken as well. This breathtakingly beautiful but isolated country is considered a developing nation. Independence from England, gained in 1976, was followed by a violent coup d'etat in 1977 resulting in one-party control until 1992.

On my arrival I was one of only four psychologists, however, in the last two years this has changed considerably, with psychological services now provided in health, education and drug and alcohol. A psychologist has also just been appointed to the correctional system, a tough job for a young person. It may be a consolation that the prison is housed on a turquoise island. Because there is no university, all professional qualifications must be obtained overseas. The government offers some scholarships and these Seychellois students are bonded to return to work in their country for a period equivalent to the time spent in training. Predictably, better wages and conditions entice most of them back to developed countries soon afterwards. Hence, expatriate professionals and trained specialists are certainly required here. Suffice to say, there is a real need for supervision and training.

My contract with the National Council for Children (NCC) is as Head of the Council's Psychology and Counselling Section. NCC's role in the Seychelles covers three aspects. Primarily it acts as an advisor and advocate to the government in its responsibility as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Secondly, it provides training for other mental health and social workers. Lastly, it provides therapeutic assistance to children and their families.

In keeping with NCC's charter, my role is to provide supervision and training for the psychology and counselling staff. Training also extends to mental health workers from other ministries such as social services, education, and health. After these exigencies are met I enjoy discretion by contributing in many other areas. These include parenting programs, showcasing children and family welfare issues, media interviews, newspaper articles, community health, interagency participation and attending to clinical and child psychological issues. It has been both exciting and rewarding to be able to introduce a code of ethics for the organisation, to initiate the concept of a Child Protection Week and to re-write a Queensland parenting program in Creole. The latter involved rescripting and re-shooting the program's DVD using my staff and a local theatre group.

Now at the end of a two-year contract, I look back on some of the biggest challenges. Not being one to suffer social exclusion for long I have become reasonably fluent in Creole. Unfortunately this is not sufficient for therapy and I require help with translation. Therapy via translation is tricky as our trade relies heavily on a well-mastered knowledge of our language, both verbal and non-verbal, with all its idiomatic expressions. This dilemma has been effectively solved by using a co-therapy approach that has become an excellent supervision opportunity as well. The icing on the cake is that it provides me with a window into the cultural interpretations of this land, I learn more Creole and the old adage ‘two heads are better than one' is proven once more to be correct.

Because of the constraints of isolation and insulation, the interagency and judicial systems can be slow to respond. We in the helping professions feel a great need to help and heal as quickly as possible. This has been maddening, as systemic change cannot happen in two years. I have been able to participate in reviews of the justice system and the penal code with regard to children's rights. Hopefully existing practices will therefore continue to be challenged.

The Seychellois culture is unique in that it has evolved from a wide spectrum of social and ethnic human values. This insular and tropical environment has a history of pirates and slavery juxtaposed with settlers from many countries including Africa, India, the Middle East, other Indian Ocean islands and, of course, a good mix from Europe and China. Thus, supervision has meant a re-think for me in order to accommodate such diversity. For example, 30 per cent of appointments do not attend for therapy. Surprisingly, this is well tolerated within the community.

So, what is it really like for a psychologist in paradise? Here is an insight into a typical day.

After a session of yoga and then breakfast, I will walk five minutes downhill to work starting at eight. My office is modern and thankfully air-conditioned. I have three clients this morning; an encopretic nine-year-old boy and his mother referred by a paediatrician; a 15-year-old girl who has allegedly been raped by her science teacher; and a new referral, a recently separated mother distressed because her partner has been having unprotected sex with other women. Adults are eligible for therapeutic service from NCC if there are children involved. The first two cases I will handle with a co-therapist as translator, the last client speaks fluent English.

The afternoon is an intake meeting where new referrals are discussed and assigned to a therapist. I will then have time to work on my professional development session for Friday. On the last Friday of each month I give a three-hour workshop/lecture to my staff and invited guests from relevant services. A recent topic was ‘Dealing with Trauma'. With any luck I might still have time to think about my article for next week's newspaper; a recent topic of this was on ‘Sexual Harassment'.

At four o'clock my wife will pick me up and we will go to the beach for a swim in these glistening warm waters. After that we will join an expatriate group for drinks and nibbles on the beach. It soon became apparent that this regular get-together was vital for sharing personal, professional and local information. The most represented country at these events is South Africa (with a sprinkling of Australians).

Tonight I think we will stay in for dinner with a barbequed fish caught and purchased today at the market with local vegetables and rice. If a container has arrived my wife may have been able to get a treat such as chocolate or an Australian wine.

This will be a busy week as I am involved in organising an exhibit at the central library to celebrate 15 years of Seychelles signing of the UN Convention. Last year we undertook training in ‘A Human Rights Approach to Programming' and we are keen to showcase this concept. All stakeholders in children's affairs have been invited to set up a display. This will be a great opportunity to try to challenge attitudes, beliefs and values regarding the treatment of children.

There will be sadness on leaving this balmy climate with its whispers of romance, its iridescent colours and its spontaneous smiles. It has been an unforgettable experience that has left me both humbled and inspired.