The skies above Galle Face Green, Colombo were full of handmade multi-coloured kites. Nothing unusual in this sight, as a long standing tradition and favourite pastime for families to come and spend hours flying their kites, eating ice cream, and walking along the beach at weekends.
But this day is slightly different. The day is World Mental Health Day, 1 October 2011. Over 100 patients and even more staff from two local psychiatric hospitals took to this vast green space by the ocean to fly kites they had made and eat ice cream like they were kids again. For many of the patients, it was their first time out of the hospital in years – and who knows how long since they left to actually do something fun. And the looks on their faces said it all.
Moments like these don’t come along every day – even when you’re volunteering. It’s really beyond words to describe seeing a person who has lived inside the walls of a hospital for decades finding themselves all of a sudden out on a Sunday afternoon flying kites with their friends. Understandably they look a bit nervous, but happy and ‘normal.’ You can easily imagine them leaving with their family at the end of the day, heading home for a meal and a sleep in their own bed. But they won’t be. Because they have an ‘illness’ of the mind, their families and friends have abandoned them.
Sri Lanka has faced more than three decades of conflict, the effects of a Tsunami and, in the North and East, prolonged economic hardship. Unsurprisingly all have had strong impacts on the mental wellbeing of the Sri Lankan population. This country has one of the highest suicide rates in the World, misuse of alcohol is frequent, and official figures suggest one in four Lankans suffer from a mental health issue (although the actual figure is undoubtedly higher).
There is only one psychiatrist for every 500,000 people in Sri Lanka and most of these live in urban areas, in particular the capital, Colombo, and work in state-run hospitals. Most non-medical mental health professionals, like social workers, have little formal training in mental health and are not properly qualified to offer the support that is needed. Not only are there shortfalls in mental health facilities and trained experts, but mental health is a difficult subject for the majority of the Sinhalese and Tamil communities to talk about openly. Stigma is alive and well here, but so is innovation and creativity in trying to reduce it.
In the short three months I have been volunteering here I have been impressed with the imaginative and entrepreneurial ideas individuals and groups have been developing in tackling stigma. In Colombo, Barefoot café (a ‘must see’ stop and shop on the usual tourist circuit) has helped launch ‘Mindful Jewellery’. The concept is simple, take some recycled paper from local businesses, add some paint and a splash of creativity, and you end up with an original piece of jewellery.
The idea for ‘Mindful Jewellery’ first originated when a teacher from the Central School of Art in London introduced the creation of paper pulp beads to Angoda Psychiatric Hospital (also known as the National Institute of Mental Health, one of two main psychiatric hospitals in Sri Lanka). Starting as a form of therapy, it quickly became a great way for patients to learn an income-generating skill with a huge upside. The first six necklaces (with each piece of jewellery labeled with helpful information about who created them, why, and what is mental health) were trailed at Barefoot – immediately flying off the shelf. Now, the project is faced with the practical challenge of keeping up a constant supply to meet the already high demand – a welcome challenge for sure!
Another interesting partnership can be found between the Amba Tea Estate and the Halfway Home Mulleriyawa. Mulleriyawa is a 600-bed psychiatric hospital for women (the other main psychiatric hospital in Sri Lanka). Many of the women at the home are capable of living productive lives in the community given the right opportunities and resources. Integrating them back into the community can be hampered by attitudes of their family and friends, who have disowned them because of the stigma associated with mental health. They need help and assistance to rebuild their lives and reintegrate into society. Handmade, multi-coloured, leaf shaped bags are made by the residents (using recycled clothing) and then used by Amba Estate as packaging for their finest organic hand-rolled tea. In a one day sale using this new packaging the project earned tens of thousands of rupees for the women.
These types of projects are important not just for generating income, but for increasing self-esteem, purpose and meaning in life, all important to people’s wellbeing. These partnerships are also a way of highlighting mental health issues to the paying public, in some hope that mental health can become something that can be openly discussed, rather than a source of shame.So back to the sight of 100 patients flying kites on a Sunday afternoon, eating ice cream, and touching the Indian Ocean, some for the first time. A bold and creative move, helping highlight mental health issues – quite literally we were flying the kite high for people with mental health problems in Sri Lanka.
Dr Marcia Brophy is Programme Leader at the Young Foundation. She is currently on a one year sabbatical working on a voluntary basis as a Mental Health and Wellbeing Development Worker and Training Advisor in Jaffna, north Sri Lanka, as part of VSO’s mental health and wellbeing programme. Marcia is working with Shanthiham, a non-for-profit charity and the Sri Lankan Government’s Department of Health.