There exists a dire need to create greater sensitivity and awareness of mental illness in Sri Lankan society, and to enhance Sri Lanka’s capacity to respond more effectively to mental disorders so that optimal mental health can be recognized in Sri Lanka. There is a lack of mental health literacy in Sri Lanka and this promotes stigma and limited access to optimal care. Stigma associated with mental illness is highly prevalent in Sri Lanka communities, causing those suffering from mental illness and their families to endure prejudice, discrimination, and harassment. This is the main obstacle to the provision of optimal care for people with mental illnesses. Beliefs of causality such as ‘Spirits’, ‘Gods and Devils’, ’paying for past mistakes illustrate ignorance. Mentally ill family members are often hidden due to shame and fear that it would affect social status, marriage prospects and employment opportunities of other family members. They are often viewed as violent, often teased, punished or starved and considered a burden to their families. Families not seeking healthcare compound these issues as mental illnesses may not be considered a priority.
Approximately five to ten percent of the Sri Lanka population is thought to be suffering from mental illness requiring medical attention (Castillo 2009). Ten percent of all children between the ages of 3 and 5 and 25% of adults over the age of 65 are known to suffer from mental disorders. About 60,000 people suffer from schizophrenia at any given time. Annually, between 5,000 and 6,000 young people develop schizophrenia for the first time; about seventy percent of these cases are likely to develop into long term illnesses. Approximately 100,000 people suffer from manic depression, symptoms of which mostly appear before the age of 30. Also, fifteen percent of the population is likely to develop depressive illness during their lifetime. As much as twenty percent of the population suffers from minor emotional problems that need care. Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates in the world (Hendin, et al 2008; Siva 2010), and contributing factors may include the thirty-year civil war and the devastating 2004 tsunami. Mental health care in Sri Lanka is plagued by poor funding, scarcity of trained human resources and reliance on tertiary care. There is only one psychiatrist per 500,000 people (Siva 2010) and there is no formal care system in place. There is a dearth of therapists and mental health social workers (ATLAS project, WHO 2001). There are three mental hospitals in the Colombo environs “Lunatic Asylums”, with a general air of squalor, dismay and prison-like gates to restrain patients. These factors play a part in the treatment of the very ill but most patients need rehabilitation and counseling rather than medication and isolation.
A community resource center at the National Council for Mental Health or NCMH also known as (Sahanaya) (www.ncmh.lk), a non-profit non-governmental organization, was established in 1982 and is a registered charity in Sri Lanka. Sahanaya, a unique and novel venture (and the first in Sri Lanka), aims to increase much needed awareness of the prevalence, causes, stigma as well as effective treatment and care options which are available. The center will be an invaluable resource for the community at large to understand and appreciate mental illness better, and also for patients with mental illness and their families. This will be an essential adjunct to the care already available in Sri Lanka.
The SLMANA - WEST 2016 fundraiser aims to collect funds to lay the groundwork for a community resource center at NCMH (Sahanaya). This would include renovation of an existing auditorium and the purchase of equipment for this center. NCMH staff will direct and oversee the project, gather and create material for display, and advertise and promote the project in order to create public interest and awareness. The fundraiser will also raise additional funds for completing and sustaining the project. The space would include an event and publications gallery, films, video clips, case studies, success stories and interesting facts for the public, including school children and law enforcement. One of the most important components, and a major focus of this center, will be a resource center where patients with mental illness and their families can gain access to the treatment and help they need.
WHEN TREATED PROPERLY, THE RESILIENCE OF THE HUMAN MIND AND BODY IS REMARKABLE. LET’S REMOVE THE STIGMA THAT AFFECTS THE MOST HELPLESS AND UNFORTUNATE SECTOR OF HUMANITY. LET’S LIGHT THIS CANDLE TO CHANGE IGNORANCE AND NON-ACCEPTANCE INTO UNDERSTANDING AND TOLERANCE.