Katherine Allen, senior mental health promotion officer at Rethink and former VSO volunteer, talks about the challenges facing mental health professionals in Sri Lanka and how British volunteers can help

What were you doing before you volunteered?

I worked for four years for a housing association managing a mental health outreach and home support service for people with mental health problems living in the community. Before that, I worked for six years as a music therapist for local authority music services, working in schools with children with a wide range of needs.

Since returning from Sri Lanka, I have been working for national mental health charity Rethink as senior mental health promotion officer, delivering anti-stigma and discrimination training.

Describe your day-to-day activities in Sri Lanka.

Things could be unpredictable because in Sri Lanka I couldn't plan ahead in quite the same way as I do in the UK, so I never knew what the day might bring. Whatever happened, I always worked closely with my Sri Lankan counterpart Kalani. This was not only because I was there to build her skills, but also because I needed her to make sure what I did and said was not culturally inappropriate and that I had not misunderstood something.

We mostly worked on developing three project proposals: one for a continuing care centre for people with mental health problems, one for a secure livelihoods project for people with mental health problems, and a school mental health awareness project. So we spent most of our time conducting needs assessments and facilitating project planning with the key people involved in the proposed projects.

What do you feel has been your greatest achievement?

I think the local people I worked with developed a greater understanding of good project design, for example, identifying goals and objectives, outputs and activities, and monitoring and evaluation. I think project terminology can be daunting to practitioners at first, so I spent time breaking down what things mean for people in their everyday working life by using examples from things they were already doing.

I hope the people I worked with are more focused now on what they want to achieve strategically, rather than using what activities they want to do and what resources they need as a starting point. This was really brought home to me during a workshop Kalani and I conducted on fundraising. I asked people to work in groups and present how they would ask for a donation. One group did a brilliant poster showing what happens to someone with mental health problems when they do receive community care and what happens when they don't to highlight the need for community care and asking for a donation of a vehicle to deliver it.

Describe your working relationship and friendship with Kalani.

I learned a huge amount from my counterpart and friend Kalani, especially in terms of personal qualities such as patience and understanding. She was my guide along the sometimes unsure path of trying to work effectively in another culture, by being very honest about which of my ideas and behaviours would work in Sri Lanka and which wouldn't.

She was also essential in finding the best way for me to deliver information to other local colleagues. In return, I hope I increased her confidence in her own skills and abilities. She did not have to "learn" anything from me as such: it was more a case of consolidating and developing what she was already capable of.

We also had a great laugh together and always shared good gossip over our rice and curry lunch every day. She was hugely significant in ensuring my time in Sri Lanka was such an enriching experience.

For more information, visit www.vso.org.uk