Sri Lanka campaigns for mental health awareness

By Manori Wijesekera  |  Oct. 5, 2012 at 1:04 PM
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (GPI)-- “I hope that I can pin this butterfly on our president,” says K.S. Sumanawathi, looking at a bright pink, felt butterfly she holds in her hand. Sumanawathi and other volunteers assemble the butterflies for a countrywide awareness and fundraising campaign in Sri Lanka for World Mental Health Day, which takes place next week on Oct. 10. At first, Sumanawathi’s wish sounds unattainable. But having overcome acute schizophrenia through the help of a community-oriented mental health initiative, Sumanawathi says she can do anything if she sets her mind to it. Sumanawathi lives in Tangalle, a town in the deep south of Sri Lanka. She says she was married to a fisherman who was often out of work and extremely abusive. An energetic and enterprising woman, Sumanawathi held the family finances together by working tirelessly at any job that came her way. But with a young son and daughter to provide for, she says the financial burden and the constant physical abuse pushed her into depression. Within a few months, her depression turned acute as she began to withdraw from her family, neighbors and friends. She stopped working and sat huddled in a corner of her house all day, not speaking a word or even looking at anyone. On other days, she wandered the streets and fields of her village in an agitated state. As her husband’s physical assaults worsened, Sumanawathi says she eventually stopped responding. One day, believing that her son had died and everyone was hiding it from her, she tried to commit suicide by jumping into a well, but her neighbors rescued her. Her family took her to traditional healers, thinking someone had bewitched her or an evil spirit had entered her. When this failed, they took her to the hospital. After several visits, the doctors diagnosed her with schizophrenia and prescribed her medication. But she didn’t like the medicine’s taste, so she refused to take it. When her family forced her, she pretended to swallow the pills but later spat them out. As her symptoms worsened, her husband sent their children to live with relatives and often locked her out of their home. Then the 2004 tsunami destroyed Sumanawathi’s home and belongings and killed her sister-in-law, whom she says had been her only friend and caretaker. “My illness got worse,” she says. “I simply couldn’t cope. I couldn’t even go forward to get government aid because I was scared of people.” She says the other villagers isolated her. “No one in my village talked to me,” she says. “I was like a ghost in their midst. They didn’t acknowledge me, and if they did refer to me, they called me the ‘mad woman.’” She lived like this for several years until two women stopped her during her wanderings through the village one day and started talking to her. “They said they wanted to come to my house,” Sumanawathi says. “I didn’t have a grain of rice to give them, but I quickly borrowed some food and cooked for them. I was touched by their kindness. It was the first time someone had spoken to me kindly after many years.” The two women were helping to introduce a community mental health project in Sumanawathi’s village to help people cope with the traumatic impacts of the tsunami and also to identify and assist those living with mental illness. Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health launched the Community Mental Health Programme in 2002 in partnership with BasicNeeds, an international charity that aims to end suffering from mental illness.

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