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Today is World Mental Health Day

Our mental health impacts every aspect of our lives, be it our emotional well-being, physical health, relationships, productivity and performance. It also affects how we cope with stress and challenges, our sense of self-worth and self-esteem and our overall quality of life.

The discussion on mental health in Sri Lanka is certainly more vibrant now. But it takes courage to put the stigma behind and not be labeled as “crazy” by society; this is a barrier that holds back those who want to seek help. Perhaps if the narrative towards mental health was phrased as brain health, people would pay more attention to looking after their brain like any other organ in their bodies. Our brain chemistry and structures alter with the experiences we undergo in life. The way we perceive the world has a significant impact on our brains therefore it is vital that we make our lives as enriching and fulfilling as possible.

One of my mentors from Malaysia recently asked me when I was venting about the state of the country and the declining mental health, “How can the people of Sri Lanka move forward to the next level when they are not able to receive their basic necessities like food, shelter and water? It’s just like in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

It is thought in theory that for one to reach their full potential, there is a process of achieving certain milestones that need to be attained. They must have their basic necessities such as food, water and shelter fulfilled at the very least. This would progress to the need for safety and security whether it be emotional or physical security. The importance of a person’s need to belong and feel love and affection cannot be emphasized enough as a necessary tenet to build oneself. This could be through family relationships, friendships, romantic relationships or pets. As people our lives would feel more fulfilling if we could navigate through life by experiencing a sense of accomplishment. This greatly adds to building our self-esteem. So it is always a good idea to take up a wider variety of interests and be curious about trying out new things. Given the current economic crisis ongoing in Sri Lanka, reaching self-actualization may be challenging for the majority of people. However, Sri Lanka has proven to be a resilient nation time and time again. It will take time to heal but growth is always a work in progress.

As a counselor, I often observe many young adults struggling with depression and anxiety because they require support to learn new ways to cope with stress and effectively resolve conflicts. Your self-esteem and self-worth and how you feel about yourself are psychological factors that need to be empowered in people from a very young age. This could begin with parents involving kids in basic daily chores such as laundry, setting up the dinner table and going grocery shopping. Some teenagers appear to have no goals in life, feeling helpless and not motivated to do anything. This is a particularly risky age as teenagers are undergoing many physiological changes and tend to engage in experimental behaviors, which could lead to picking up unhelpful habits such as drug addiction that could have disastrous impacts on their lives. Children need to be empowered by exploring the world and experiencing life in various circumstances, which is where extracurricular activities come into play. Taking up a sport, being part of a team or learning a new skill can help you to build your self-esteem. It is vital to praise your child for a job well done or for their effort in giving things a shot.

A misconception about therapy is the belief that therapy is a waste of time and that these issues are just in one’s head. I have had some parents telling me that their child does not need counseling and they are capable of advising their child and therapy is a waste of time and money. Therapy is not about giving advice. There are plenty of advice givers in our lives and sometimes that advice may not be what we need at that time. For example, telling someone who overthinks not to think about it is not going to help them to stop. There needs to be a mechanism in place to process one’s emotions and understand what is going on in the mind. Therapy provides you with a judgment free, open, honest and safe space to navigate your inner workings. It is a structured and scientific practice that aims to help a person build new ways of looking at problems, build coping skills, learn relaxation techniques and provide emotional support by an unbiased individual.

Given that many of the psychological tools and theories have been tested in Western cultures, there is a need to include cultural appropriation in the field of mental health in Sri Lanka. Considering that there are language differences, some of the terminology may get lost in translation. It is key to work on frameworks that would resonate better with Sri Lankans.

Another factor is that psychological terminology is being used in everyday contexts by people. For example, “I am very OCD about alignment”. It would be better to use words such as particular or meticulous instead of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), which is sometimes a severe condition for sufferers who experience obsessive thoughts and fixations that impact their daily functioning and hence would minimize the depth of someone genuinely suffering from the condition. I have heard words such as triggered, trauma and depressed being used in everyday conversations. This devalues the actual strong emotional and psychological reaction experienced by sufferers. So it is always best to educate yourself about such issues.

For our society to progress further, it is mandatory to include practical training in life skills and emotional development as part of the educational curriculum and in workplaces. These would involve basic techniques required to navigate through life including learning better coping mechanisms, conflict resolution skills, anger management, empathy cultivation and building self-awareness. The emotional vocabulary and communication skills in people should be further developed in school and at home. These tools are necessary to live a fulfilling and happy life and enable people to reach their full potential.