Mental Health in Sri Lanka

By João

“Shame, guilt, humiliation. I do not want to go through it all. Better if I just stay indoors. Away from everything and everyone. It feels so oppressing, as if all April’s heat has entered my body, and the monsoon will never come to release me from this heaviness. I feel suffocated. Eventually, things will get better, this weight will be lifted off my shoulders. Or maybe not, and I’ll just stay here, on my own, waiting for some help which will never come”.

Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder, mental health problems. For many, concepts difficult to put into words – they are not like a visible bruise you can see on your skin, a broken bone causing agonising pain, or a nagging migraine which just won’t go away. Yet health problems affecting our psychological and emotional well-being are as real and tangible as any physical illness, affecting the lives of millions across the world.

The story in Sri Lanka is no different. Despite demonstrating an enormous resilience towards adversity, the country’s recent history of conflict and natural disasters has left profound scars in its population. Thousands of Sri Lankans are thought to experience mental health problems, yet help and support is not always available, particularly for those living in more remote communities away from the capital and coastal regions.

Over the past few years significant efforts have been made to improve mental health care practice across the island. Numbers of health care staff trained in psychiatric skills does however remain low, particularly of those combining mental health and community work training.

Together with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) located in Angoda, and the University of Kelanya, Unity in Health has embarked on a small yet ambitious plan to train more community mental health nurses in the country – professionals who can support those who suffer alone and in silence, and bring much needed treatment and above all hope where none seems to be left.

The course consists of a Higher Diploma in Community Mental Health Nursing, to be offered to approximately 50 to 60 general nurses (numbers to be confirmed) currently working in hospitals across the island. For a period of three months and with the support of both UK trained health care volunteers and local lecturers, students will be encouraged to broaden their knowledge on mental illness and related care, community based support, and to engage in practical placements across different settings currently operating in Sri Lanka. Ultimately, it is hoped that the availability of more trained nurses in community mental health care will stimulate the creation of much needed multidisciplinary, community based health care teams particularly in regions where these are currently non-existent. In essence, our final aim is to bring professional care and support to those most forgotten and ignored.

We would not be able to deliver this without the help of others. The support and enthusiasm of Gecko and all its friends is immensely appreciated by us all – you are helping to make this a reality, and for that we are all very grateful.

We would be delighted to see you in Sri Lanka whilst delivering the programme, so if you happen to be around later in the year, do let us know – it will be a pleasure to share our experiences with you all.

Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan writer who died earlier in April of this year, has a wonderful quote with which we could not agree more:

“I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it’s humiliating. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other and learns from the other. I have a lot to learn from other people.”

On behalf of all future nurses to be trained and from our team, once again thanks a million to all “Geckos”!

We hope to see you soon,


Unity in Health


Staff at the National Institute of Mental Health, having a break under a tree, January 2015


About geckosrilanka

Gecko Sri Lanka is a UK registered charity founded in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami by a group of second generation Sri Lankan students.
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