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Larson has ‘amazing experience’ with Mercy Ships

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – A Monmouth College psychology professor recently assisted mental health professionals who work in the west African nation of Benin.

In early April, psychology professor Kristin Larson served as a one-week volunteer for Mercy Ships, an international charity with a current focus on African countries.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Larson.

Larson learned about the organization when it was featured on the television show 60 Minutes.

“Mercy Ships goes up and down the west coast of Africa, providing free medical care – things like surgeries for crooked legs, tumors and cataracts,” said Larson. “The work they do is needed and impactful.”

After watching the 60 Minutes segment and a YouTube video about the organization, Larson contacted Mercy Ships.

“I told them, ‘If there’s anything I can do, let me know,” she said. “I wound up meeting with Lyn Westman, who serves as the mental health program consultant for Mercy Ships. She told me there was a need to teach basic counseling skills, so I did training for mental health professionals in Benin.”

Larson conducted three days of workshops, meeting the first two days with local mental health professionals and the third day with “first responders.”

“The training participants had some training,” Larson said. “The big concern is that their training is theoretical from books, but they haven’t been provided a lot of practical skills.”

One of the individuals she worked with was Dr. Tabo, the only certified psychiatrist in the Central African Republic, which has a population of 4.5 million.

“I just looked at him and thought ‘How do you deal with all these traumatized people?’” said Larson.

The first responders included the military and the police. Larson trained them on the first things to do when they encounter someone with mental trauma.

Helping Larson relay her training were “two wonderful translators from Togo and Cameroon who were part of the Mercy Ships volunteer team. I consider them friends for life.”

When Mercy Ships works with a country, such as Benin, Larson explained it does so in three-year cycles. “There’s a year before the ship arrives, a year of and a year after,” she said, although the mental health team has been going to Benin most years since 2009.

Larson was part of the year after, as the organization’s hospital ship, the Africa Mercy, was docked in Cotonou, Benin, from August 2016 to June 2017. During the 10-month stay, Mercy Ships provided nearly 1,800 free life-changing surgeries for adult and child patients on board. The volunteer crew treated nearly 7,000 people at a land-based dental clinic, mentored nearly 100 Beninese health care professionals and trained nearly 1,900 participants in medical capacity-building courses such as “Essential Surgical Skills” and “Primary Trauma.”

Larson also had time to do shopping and sightseeing in Benin, including a “stilt village” that sits on a salt lake a few miles inland.

“It’s a developing country, but there were amazing amounts of generosity and joy,” she said.