When psychologist Marlene Lee received her first field posting with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF; Doctors Without Borders) — to Kashmir in 2007 to coordinate psychosocial assistance to Kashmiris affected by over 20 years of conflict and instability — her family, worried for her safety, threatened disownment. Now a five-time MSF field veteran in emergency intervention — Sichuan Earthquake, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, LRA violence in south Sudan and the Padang earthquake in Indonesia — the 37-year-old has shown just how rewarding the work can be. “My mother would still prefer that I do not go out again, but I know that at the end of the day she is proud of me,” she says.
“The experiences have radically altered my priorities and outlook on life. For starters, I’ve learned to better appreciate what I already have and to not sweat the small stuff. Also, as clinical psychologists, we sometimes get too engrossed trying to uncover what is not working, and how to fix it, that we sometimes overlook the strengths and protective factors that lie within each person and aid in recovery. Fieldwork reminds me to look for that balance,” she adds.
One of a rare breed of Singapore-based MSF volunteers, the clinical psychologist attributes her calling to having observed her parent’s kindness and compassion to family and strangers as a child. After completing her doctoral training in the US in 2005, she took up a teaching position at the National University of Singapore before taking time off as a full-time volunteer with MSF between 2007 and 2009. Currently in independent practice, Lee, as co-founder of EAP Consultants, also provides mental wellness programmes that support employers and employees in the workplace.