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Understanding mental illness

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This past Tuesday marked World Mental Health Day. It came a week after a young man was ridiculed on social media and in various gossip columns over his decision to take his own life. The sensationalisation of the suicide in the press was particularly disturbing in its callous disregard of the victim, his family, and any number of other people suffering from mental illness.

This lack of awareness when it comes to mental illness is not unique to Sri Lanka, but that is not by any means an excuse for Sri Lanka’s poor handling of the situation. A significant number of people in the country suffer from psychiatric illnesses and serious mental disorders. Available data suggests that about 10% of the population is afflicted with more common psychiatric ailments. 

Many Asian families, including Sri Lankan families, however hide mental illness from society to avoid discrimination in terms of marriage engagements and employment prospects. Even when help has been sought, evidence shows that reintegration into families is poor due to the associated stigma. 

This leads to a vicious cycle whereby people with mental illnesses continue to be undiagnosed, leading to isolation, particularly if action is not taken to understand and support families experiencing mental healthcare problems. While stigma is an overarching barrier associated with mental disorders worldwide, it is far more prominent in Asian countries where communities are family-oriented. Therefore it is clear that addressing diverse and complex mental health issues requires multiple approaches to intervention and support provision. This demands the development of professional services such as psychiatrists and community-based mental health services to supplement the traditional societal coping strategies, dealing with interpersonal and social problems such as stigma and discrimination, which cause considerable suffering to individuals and their families. One of the most effective ways of spreading the message is through the media. Media organisations need to put in place better protocols, and proceed with more tact, when it comes to the reporting of mental illness and incidents caused as a result of mental illness. Instead of vilifying those with mental illness, use these tragic incidents as an opportunity to de-stigmatise mental illness.

Fact-checking too needs to improve; it has been erroneously reported in several instances, citing the World Health Organisation (WHO) no less, that Sri Lanka has the fourth highest rates of suicide in the world. New data suggests Sri Lanka is, in fact, 22nd, with suicide rates having dropped in recent years.

The danger of the media hyping antiquated data, which represents a false narrative on suicide in the country, is that it gives way to fear mongering, which in turn limits productive conversations on the subject, with ludicrous assertions behind the reasoning of a mentally ill individual dominating public discourse, rather than what we as a society can do to help those who are suffering with similar problems.

It would also help if the Government provided a comprehensive and integrated response to mental health and care services, which educates people on mental health issues in community-based settings and implements strategies to create awareness over preventing mental health issues. 

At present the National Institute of Mental Health in Angoda has undertaken reforms, which is a great starting point. However, in the same vein, the Government also does not acknowledge PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) as a mental illness, so there is still plenty of room for improvement.


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