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“Young people should be given a space to talk about their feelings” – Sri Lankan Psychologist Nivendra Uduman

2018 Oct 10

A subject heavily shamed under the scrutiny of stigma and far too often swept under the rug is that of mental health. Subtle – or maybe even not so subtle – each manifestation of mental illness may be as lethal as cancer or perhaps coronary heart disease. Would you dismiss it if you caught the signs? Would you, dear reader, downplay mental health as many before you have done and continue to do so?

Yes, perhaps we have improved as a nation. We are no longer wholly governed by the ideas of blaming supernatural spirits and demons for mental illness as, with each passing day, the importance on the upkeep of mental health gets more attention. But there is yet a long way to go and that is what we should all aim to realize this World Mental Health Day.

Speaking with Pulse on Lanka’s current situation regarding mental health is Nivendra Uduman, a counseling Psychologist with an independent practice and also the Founder of Footsteps to Freedom, an inspiring movement that trailed across Lanka with the hopes of raising awareness on mental health and suicide prevention.

“Mental Health in Sri Lanka is something that needs a lot of work because, at the moment, there is still plenty of stigma attached to mental illness and suicide. It really requires collaboration between state actors and non-state actors to come together to improve the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of our people. I think it should be given priority- which it is not at the moment. It is not prioritized by the government as much as it should be so I think people really need to wake up and understand that mental health is as, if not more, important that physical health,” Nivendra states.

World Mental Health Day 2018 focuses its attention on the younger generations. Young people are often met with many challenges during this period (physical, psychological, behavioral etc.) but while some may describe this as an exciting time full of seizing the days and making use of care-free opportunities, it also a time of great vulnerability, including specialized problems and needs. Neglect or ill treatment during this age (specially factoring the dawn of the technological era, civil conflicts, stigma surrounding mental health etc.) leaves a child sensitive to excessive stress. In fact, most of all mental health illness begins by the age of 14.

Globally and Locally

Did you know roughly 450 million people each year suffer from some variation of mental illness? The World Health Organization has identified mental illness as being a leading factor in illness and disability. Further reports show around 800, 000 people commit suicide in a year – 79% of which occur in low and middle income countries.

In Lanka, data gathered by the Lankan Police Department showed a suicide rate of 27.7 per 100,000 men and 7.7 per 100, 000 women. And these are only of reported cases. A report published by the Epidemiology Unit in 2017 showcased 802, 321 cases of depression. The report also included 39% of Lankan students reporting being bullied within the past 30 days and these children were 5 times as likely to report anxiety.

Regarding Lanka’s progress, Nivendra goes on to say, “I think there are some parts of Sri Lanka that do a lot of work with younger people in schools and universities but as a whole, we are not doing enough. Mental Health should be included in school curriculums where young people are taught coping skills and how to face rejection, for example, in relationships and how to cope with failure….
For example, I did a walk around Lanka to raise awareness on mental health. When I went to schools, what I realized was that our younger generations are under a great deal of pressure. Young people should be given a space to talk about their feelings, which is heavily suppressed in education systems, where they are not allowed to open up about their feelings or be emotionally intelligent. Emotional Intelligence and mental health should be really touched upon from Kindergarten onwards.”

He further stresses on the notion of shame that is associated with failure. This is an aspect, heavily influenced by parental and school pressures, that also needs to be addressed as it causes a lot of low self-esteem and other problems in young people. Currently, such sensitive issues are rarely addressed in a home or a school setting, where a child lives in constant fear of disappointing his elders. The resulting anxiety and depression from this vulnerable period will also often go undiagnosed.

Lankan communities have, in the past, dictated that we trivialize or ignore mental illness. The risk of not doing so? Reputations face ruin, children are at risk of being bullied or patients are shamed and face judgment. The risk of giving into these misconceived notions, however? At its worst, the child (be it next door, two blocks away or in your same class) who was depressed, neglected and dismissed as being an attention-seeker might have taken his life by now. So we must ask ourselves – is his life, or another’s chance of happiness, the cost of our need to shame and downplay the legitimacy of mental illness in a setting where it has already been proven?


This World Mental Health Day, spread the word. 

Where to Get Psychological Support in Sri Lanka


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