As of today (International Volunteering Day!), I have exactly three months left in Sri Lanka. Exactly 90 or so days to rid the island of mental health stigma and discrimination and change the sensational way the media reports on mental health issues like suicide. Best of luck, bub…
While I know my work over the past 2 years has made some small inroads and progress, the overall impact has been equivalent to the size of an amoeba’s belly button. And even the small things I’ve done are about as sustainable as an ice cube on the 150 bus under the Angoda sun at noon. (Okay, enough of the cheesy metaphors.)
But, at the end of the day, I’m okay with that. I never came here to change the world, or change anything for that matter. My goal was to plant a few seeds, learn about a completely different field of work and meet some new, interesting people – and it’s been a success on all fronts.
Changing attitudes anywhere – but especially in Sri Lanka – is a generational odyssey that will only truly see the light of day when a majority of people on the island make it a priority. You don’t force these things. They have to happen naturally.
And, hopefully, when the critical mass of the country is open and ready to look at mental health in a different way, the small seeds me and the rest of the VSO volunteers planted will still be remembered – and will still be useful to the people leading the way.
In many ways I think my work here, although desperately needed, was ahead of its time.
While the mental health service has come a long way in recent years, the most critical need for volunteer assistance still comes in the improvement of the actual care of people with mental health problems. You don’t have to be a mental health professional to see basic problems like how liberally and incorrectly things like electric shock therapy are prescribed and how treatments like counseling or talk therapy are pretty much non-existent.
Before asking the media to do a better job reporting or writing a nice article about a project at the hospital, I think it’s more important to ensure mental health services are at an adequate level first. While improvements have been happening thanks to a small number of dedicated volunteers, professionals and patients, progress is slow and many improvements still need to be made.
Sometimes, (many times, actually) I’ve thought that my placement would have been far more affective focused on writing articles that questioned and criticized the mental health service in the country, specifically focusing on poor patient care. While that method completely goes against the VSO way of working and my work visa would have quickly been revoked, it’s sort of what’s really needed right now to make change happen, especially for someone with my work and education experience.
However, back in the reality that is Sri Lanka, working within the system is the only possible way a foreign volunteer can stay in the country – and the same can be said for locals as well. Sadly, everyone has to be careful about making any sort of constructive criticism or inquiry when it comes to government institutions or departments. It’s just the way it’s been for a long time in this country, but hopefully, won’t be the case forever. (This is a whole other blog for when Trina and I are both back in Canada.)
In the meantime, there’s no argument that the media, the general public, the government, the medical community, me – everyone – still needs to learn the basics about mental health and I only have 89 days left…gotta go.
Thanks for reading. Take care.