Members from one of the consumer groups present their provincial action plan.

Last week I got to be the official photographer at Sri Lanka’s first ever mental health self-help group workshop. Close to 100 people from all over the island with mental health problems, along with their family members and mental health professionals (doctors, social workers, nurses), got together to talk about their experiences and brainstorm ways to improve their medical treatment and their lives.

The workshop was paid for by our VSO mental health project, so that’s why I got the photo gig.

It was one of the those rare moments in this volunteering thing, similar to World Mental Health Day, where you felt like something good was happening.

People who are used to being on the very fringes of society actually got a chance to say something and people were actually listening. They got to talk about what’s it’s like to live with an illness where the way people treat you is most times worse than the actual symptoms of the illness.

The best part of the three-day event was the engagement and excitement of the participants. It was the first time since I’ve been here that a room was full 3o minutes before the meeting began – and it was on a Sunday night. On the second day, we had to force people to leave their discussion groups after a 12-hour day because the restaurant wanted to finish up supper before 9 p.m. The conference centre where everyone stayed in dorm-style rooms only had 1 bathroom for every 10 people. No one complained. Everyone was grateful.

I’ve never seen anything like it. In Canada, there would have been a revolt.  In Sri Lanka, there was nothing but thank yous and admiration. In many ways this workshop pointed out how damaging things like entitlement are in western society. Being grateful is many times seen as a weakness and that’s a shame.

On the last day of the workshop, the groups presented their action plans to each other and various government officials in attendance. It didn’t really matter how solid the plans were or how quickly things would be implemented. What mattered was that a sense of hope was created. People realized that they were not alone in this fight. While everyone recognized the battle would be a long one, they now had others to share the experience with.

Will anything change now for people with mental illness? Probably not. But I don’t think that was the point.

For three days these people were important and recognized that together they have the power to change their situation. They had a voice. Now we just need to figure out how to make it louder.

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