It’s been a whirlwind 72 hours and thankfully my mind is still sound.
World Mental Health Day was celebrated on October 10, and with it came kite flying, awareness marches, media interviews, news releases, open houses, art exhibitions, portrait drawing, craft sales and lots of sickly sweat tea-like drinks – all mixed into three full days. As always, the event planning was rushed, but the delivery was seamless. Nothing started on time, but nothing ever does. Everything motored along like it was supposed to (I think) and everyone seemed happy with the results.
By far, the kite flying on Galle Face Green was my favourite. Over 100 patients and even more employees took to this vast green space by the ocean to fly kites 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 a sheltered life inside the walls of a hospital for decades all of a sudden be 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 then you snap back into reality and remember their illness. And just because it’s an illness in their mind, their family may have abandoned them and society has turned its back. Their illness defines them. If only it was a broken leg or something physical, something we can see, these patients wouldn’t be patients at all. They’d be looked at as ‘normal’ and flying kites with their families all the time – not just one day a year.
One of the best parts of the day for me came in this exchange with a reporter who was there covering the story:
Reporter: Where are the patients?
Shaun: They’re the ones wearing the white shirts, the same as all the employees.
Reporter: But if they’re both wearing the same shirts, you can’t tell the patients and the employees apart.
Shaun: Exactly. Take a look around. Can you tell who are the people with mental illness and who are the employees?
Reporter: No, I can’t. But I suppose that’s the point, people with mental illness are really no different from everyone else.
Shaun: My job here is done. Mental health stigma has been eradicated in Sri Lanka! Bring on world peace and/or the cure for ebola.*
* This may not have been exactly what I said to wrap the conversation up. It may have just been a smile and a nod and a silent fist pump in my mind.
There’s a strong possibilty that these past 72 hours will be my most meaningful during my placement in Sri Lanka. And if that’s the case, I’m okay with it. For a few short hours everyone was the same, no one was different. Even I felt less white. It felt good.
Here are the pictures: