Shaun and Trina are Sweating

Join us as we eat curry, go on adventures and fight the evil travellers' diarrhea.



Sri Lankan TV, judging and mental health

World Mental Health Day is never complete without a march around Colombo dodging traffic and breathing in bus fumes.

With World Mental Health Day coming and going on October 10, it’s been a busy time in the mental health and the media world.

In September, there were four different training sessions offered for over a 100 journalists on mental health reporting. In October, there were events almost every day promoting various mental health issues, all of which required news releases, photos and website updates. I also somehow managed to get invited to the Minister of Health’s office, hang out in Parliament for a few hours and have a sit down in the President’s living room!?!

Working in a mental health media unit of one, I’ve been a busy volunteer.

I also managed to find myself sometimes thrust in front of the microphone too and I was instantly reminded why I chose to go into the print side of the media 12 years ago in journalism school. It also reminded me that all of the TV assignments I did put together in school were used in the blooper video at graduation.

I might have made it as a comedian, but not as a broadcaster.

Needless to say, TV has never been my forte, but when you’re already working in a completely foreign environment, why not go on national TV as a judge in a debate?

So that’s what I did a few weeks back, when I was called in as an emergency replacement judge on The Debater, a high school debating tournament. The judging panel included the Director of the College of Journalism, the head of a University English department and me, some white guy from Canada who volunteers at the mental hospital.

As you’ll see in the video below, I did my best, but I definitely picked the right path in school.

I also recently was interviewed on a current events show looking into attitudes about mental health. It was a great experience and excellent national exposure for the issues I’m dealing with, but I’m guessing this will be the end of my Sri Lankan TV career. Okay by me.



P.S. I’m wearing a butterfly to support a World Mental Health Day project I was a part of…check it out on Facebook:

Global Perspectives on Mental Health

Part 1

Part 2 –

Part 3

The Debater

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4


A national newspaper column of my very own

I swear on my rice packet that this wasn’t my plan when we decided to come to Sri Lanka. Yet, somehow, I’ve recently stumbled into writing a weekly column in a national English (thankfully) newspaper. Like most things about life here, I can’t explain it, other than to say that’s just the way things happen here.

One minute a radio station is emailing you to wash your penis and the next minute a giant picture of your face is appearing under your byline. The randomness is so excellent.

Needless to say it’s an awesome opportunity and I’m very grateful to the editor of the Ceylon Today newspaper for giving me this chance. I also know that this would have never happened back home, so I plan on doing my best to use the column to invite discussion and thought about the various mental health issues I’ve come across.

At this moment, you might be asking yourself, or me, ‘But Shaun, what the hell do you know about mental health? You’re not a doctor or a nurse and you don’t even own a stethoscope.”

Well, that’s a good question and all very true points (although I might pinch a stethoscope before I go), which is why I won’t be talking much about symptoms or treatments in the column, but will instead focus on attitudes and perceptions.

In the past year-and-a-half, most of my work has revolved around examining and addressing how people think and feel about mental illness in Sri Lanka, as well as challenging my own thoughts about mental health. It’s been an interesting journey that I hope will come out in the columns, and one I hope that whoever reads the column (thanks mom) will find interesting too.

My first three columns can be found below and I will also archive them on the NIMH website under the Mental Health in the News tab –

You can also read the Ceylon Today newspaper at:

Stay tuned for my next blog when I’ll unveil my two recent appearances on national TV. (Hint: In one of the appearances I am a judge, which just happens to be one of my favourite past times.)

My debut as a columnist. Why wouldn’t I want my head to be the featured attraction.
I’ve always wanted my face to appear under Mahinda’s moustache.
My face disappeared from this one, but that’s okay.

My picture in the paper

Thumbs up! We made it to the front page of the Entertainment section in the local paper and all we had to do was show up at a jazz concert. I’m the shady dude in black flashing my thumb for the camera.
Here’s a closer look at the VSO crew and the giant glasses of apple juice on the table. Trina is so jealous she missed out on this fame.

A Trinco weekend in photos

If you like beaches, you'll like Trinco.

This past weekend I got to enjoy one of the perks of my volunteer gig – travel to an exotic location in the country where there also happen to be journalists and talk to them about mental health reporting. Well, that’s what I did for one and a half days. The others  were pretty much spent at the beach drinking Lion lager and eating. Good times and a great way to mark my one year anniversary living in Sri Lanka.

Thanks to fellow volunteer Hans for arranging and all the eager Trinco journalists for attending the workshop. Enjoy the photos:

Producing a TV show in a foreign language

This is the logo for the show our mental health segment is appearing on...I think.

My career in TV news ended before it started.

Back in university, a broadcast journalism class was a required course for my degree, and it took about 3 seconds into my first TV story  (complete with a frightened, stunned stare and slight drool) to know that this was not my calling. (At graduation, the j-school played a blooper reel using our assignments and everyone of my TV stories found their way into the piece to great guffaws from the crowd.)

After passing the broadcast course with the agreement to never go in front of the camera again, my time in TV was mercifully over – until I came to Sri Lanka.

A couple months back at a meeting with the national broadcaster about mental health training for their journalists, we were able to secure a weekly, 15-minute mental health segment on an afternoon talk show. We were given control over the topics and guests – and the best part – it was completely free.

This seemed like a ‘no shit it’s free’ thing to me, but apparently in Sri Lanka, getting time on talk shows (no matter what the topic), costs thousands of dollars. With no budget, obviously that wouldn’t have worked for my project. Needless to say, this was a coup and one of those unexpected things that seem to happen here, which have nothing to do with me, but all to do with pure, dumb luck.

One hitch about the segment is that the channel, the show (and everyone who works on it) is all spoken in Sinhala, so even though I’m arranging the guests and topics, I have no idea what anyone is saying during the interviews. It’s completely bizarre. With four episodes already under our belt, it appears to be going fine, but really I have no idea. So far (I think), we’ve addressed mental health as it relates to families, communities and service providers trying to balance useful information with real life stories from Sri Lankans.

The people appearing on the show have all been positive afterwards and we’ve received good feedback from the audience. With four weeks left in our agreement with the station, we hope to continue the segment as long as possible. Anything that raises the public’s mental health literacy is a good thing – even though I can’t understand a word.

If you get Sri Lankan TV and understand Sinhala, watch Rupavahini every Monday at 3 p.m. to get your weekly dose of mental health. Thankfully for you and the rest of the audience, I will be seated safely behind the camera where I belong.


A grand opening of the mental health media unit

The NIMH media unit is now officially open...and quickly locked right after the ceremony. Next step, find the person with the key. Wish me luck and hopefully it doesn't take another year. UPDATE: Got the keys and I'm in! Although I have to hand the keys in at the end of each day. I guess my status here is day-to-day.

After almost 11 months to the day that I arrived in Sri Lanka, the mental health media unit at the hospital where I work was officially opened. It’s a beautiful new building with fresh paint, a new fan, a computer, a printer and three desks (not sure why we need three?). Everything you need to operate a media relations department.

Outside of finding the key to unlock the door (which I did after a few days), the only thing left to do is find that elusive Sri Lankan to work with me in the unit and take over once I leave next year. So far the search has turned up empty, but there is optimism that someone will be found.

Because, while I have the best of intentions and ideas, it’s clear that only a Sri Lankan will bring this unit to the level that it needs to be. While I’m happy with my work and relationship building in the English media, my inability to write and work in Sinhala and Tamil means that I’m just scraping the surface. Not to mention that my writing has been said to be ‘too polite’ and not rude enough for Sri Lanka? Haha…I can get rude if they want?

Patience is the key as slowly, slowly we build something sustainable. My guess is I’ll find out about who my successor will be the same way I found out about the media unit opening:

Me answering my phone at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night: Hello.

Hospital Director: Hello? (in a hushed tone)

Me: Hi Dr. Mendis. How are you?

Hospital Director: Hello?

Me: Yes Dr. Mendis. This is Shaun. Hello.

Hospital Director: Yes, we are opening the media unit tomorrow.

Me: We are? Okay. Where is it?

Hospital Director: The new building.

Me: Okay. (Thinking: The building that was still in shambles when I left today?)

Hospital Director: You can say a few words, okay?

Me: Sure, no problem.

Hospital Director: Okay, okay…come early (click)

That was it. The ribbon was cut the next day as the paint was still drying. That’s how it’s done here. Good times.


Educating the Sri Lankan media…and myself

Here are the students after 4 hours of talking about mental health issues - they all look very well too...

Like I’ve mentioned a couple times on this blog before, most days as a volunteer are fairly ordinary. You’ve got to deal with meetings, emails,  crowded commuter buses, bizarre phone calls, availability of clean toilets, weird co-workers, no power (like right now), etc., etc. Pretty run of the mill stuff.

Then there are those rare days. Days where you actually feel like you’re maybe serving a purpose here. Days when you’re not just running around or sitting at your computer with no particular direction. Days when you’re in your wheel house and you know it. If I had to take a guess, I’d say I’ve had about 6 or 7 of those “days” – which I think is pretty good and I’m thankful for everyone of them.

I had a day like that last week in Jaffna, when I ran a workshop for 26 journalism students at the University of Jaffna on mental health reporting. Even though none of them spoke English and the entire session was run through a translator in Tamil, the students’ enthusiasm and interest in the subject was evident as soon as I walked in the door.

I could have been talking about how to report on garbage dumps or Leo Sayer and they would have been engaged. Not only did this make my job easier (because by no means am I a teacher), it also lead to some great discussions about mental health, and hopefully a deeper understanding of the topic for the students.

I know the questions they raised challenged and taught me a lot, and I can only hope I did the same for them.

Will these young journalists ever report on personal details of an individual suicide? Will they refer to someone with a mental illness as ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ in their articles? They might. The fact remains that this type of reporting is still the norm here, and there’s no doubt they will face pressure from their editors as junior reporters.

All I can really hope for is that at some point in their careers they remember that goofy looking foreigner with the white eyebrows who stopped by once to talk about mental health issues. Come to think of it, the effectiveness of my session rests solely on my eyebrows and how memorable they may or may not be to those 26 students. They haven’t let me down this far, so my fingers are crossed…



Mental health and the Sri Lankan media

Even though it seems like I’ve just been gallivanting around for the last couple months, I have actually been doing some work too. While it’s a slow go, you quickly learn to celebrate even the smallest of successes, so as to avoid requiring mental health services yourself.

At first, my goal was just not getting lost on the way to work. Next, it was making sure I didn’t stink. Like I said, baby steps.

After four months in my placement, my list of accomplishments is embarrassingly small. I’ve helped generate some media interest in a couple of events at the hospital, we’ve challenged one instance of unethical suicide reporting, I’ve helped deliver one training for mental health professionals and one for journalists, I’ve attempted to update the NIMH website and I’m attempting to print a newsletter at the hospital, which I drafted three months ago and might get to the printer this week – luckily it’s not breaking news. 

While I know that list doesn’t look that bad, it’s only a drop in the bucket of what’s needed to actually make any sort of a dint in the stigma that exists. All I can do is keep chipping away and hopefully momentum will start to build.

Maybe the Sunday Observer article that appeared this week will be a spark. While the language to describe people with mental illness isn’t perfect, the overall message is a positive one and to actually have voices and faces of patients in the article may be a first in Sri Lanka.

All of this from a simple letter I sent to editors in the country requesting a chance to talk with them about mental health. While that letter found its way to the garbage of most newsrooms, it did generate a few calls and a couple of positive articles. While small, it’s those moments that have kept me going and will keep me going until the end of my placement.

Oh, and the fact that I didn’t get lost today and my smell is neutral – at worst.

If you’re interested in how the Sri Lanka media has been covering mental health issues since I’ve been here, I’ve been archiving the English articles on the NIMH website. The Sinhalese and Tamil coverage will be added eventually, I just need to find my successor – someone that speaks and writes in all three languages, likes to write and is comforable talking with the media. No small task.

Wish me luck.



Feature article on IABC Regina website

Here’s a feature article about our journey found on the Regina chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators’ website:

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