Mental care in Transylvania

A castle in Transylvania. (Stock image)

A castle in Transylvania.
(Stock image)

Sandymount local Anna O’Donohue recently qualified as a mental health nurse and is spending two months volunteering in a Romanian psychiatric hospital.

Working with the UK charity Volunteers for Mental Health –, she is based in the town of Tarnaveni, Transylvania. The hospital cares for male and female patients aged from 18 upwards with a range of mental health and social needs.

“I discovered the charity by searching online for an opportunity to do some voluntary work abroad. As I was coming towards the end of my mental health nurse training, I thought I’d take the chance to do something when I finished my degree course that could be difficult when I had a job, needing to get time off etc,” Anna explained.

The charity was founded 23 years by a mental health nurse who, while volunteering in a Romanian orphanage, was struck by the lack of facilities and available once the children reach 18.

Volunteers for Mental Health recruit a variety of people with qualifications in mental health, from nurses and occupational therapists to social workers. There are usually two or three volunteers in situ at any given time. They work a full week in the hospital and live together in a nearby apartment rented by the charity.

Some of Anna’s key responsibilities involve coordinating therapeutic activities for small groups, such as letter writing, cooking, reading newspapers and sensory awareness work. She also spends time visiting the wards to assess conditions and liaise with the hospital staff.

Some of the patients suffer from mental health issues, learning disabilities, dementia, or a combination, so the group activities vary greatly depending on their interests, abilities and available resources.

The winter is cold in this region, with temperatures often dropping below zero and snow falling regularly. “In summer there’s more opportunity to do outdoor activities on the hospital grounds, like sports and walking, but the place is still covered in ice and snow, making this almost impossible,” Anna told NewsFour.

“I’ve found conditions in the hospital difficult and the language barrier can be a challenge (although there is support from a translator), but the patients are extremely grateful for even the smallest things that we do for them. We recently took a group of seven women on an outing to a local café and a church service, and they absolutely loved it. They were so appreciative as it just wouldn’t be feasible for hospital staff to do anything like this.”

Some of the patients living in the facility have the potential to work and live independently but ended up in the hospital as a result of social problems such as homelessness, old age and limited family support. There is a lack of welfare benefits and employment support in the wider community and leaving the hospital is not always a viable option for many patients.

Unemployment in the area is extremely high as a result of a number of large factories closing down. In addition, when a rare job is secured the wages are very low, which all negatively impacts their chances of thriving outside the facility.

Anna was able to participate in the programme thanks largely to fundraising donations from friends and family. When her two months of volunteering in Transylvania are finished, she is due to move to Bristol and start her first job as a qualified nurse with the NHS in a secure mental health facility.

By Caoimhe Fox