April 7th marked World Health Day, a campaign created by the WHO to address various global health concerns. This year, the key issue was Depression.
The idea behind the campaign was to address a startling rise in depression globally – an 18% increase in the last decade. We were so lucky to be in Colombo to take a look at all of the great initiatives happening around Sri Lanka to combat depression across all age groups, ethnicities, and sexes.
We were particularly struck by the installation piece set out by the Academy of Design (AOD). Nadia de los Santos, the Head of Design Foundation, explained that the installation was borne out of seeing students struggling during exam period , without the appropriate channels to address their mental health issues. Using art, a strength at AOD, students were asked to make anonymous cards, either to express themselves, reach out for help, or to offer support. Some cards addressed social and academic pressures, insecurities, and negative thoughts, while others offered words of support and love. The AOD also had a table where they invited visitors to make their own cards to be added to the installation. Looking at those cards, it was easy to see that there is a need for appropriate and adequate mental health services in Sri Lanka.
Our next stop was the CCC Foundation booth. Standing for Courage, Compassion, and Commitment, CCC gave us cards with words of support and a hotline number, open everyday, where Sri Lankans can call to talk for free, in either Tamil or Sinhala. I had no idea that this existed, and I will have to tell everyone I know about it!
What we were looking forward to most, though, was the art therapy session. It was in the main tent, led by Registered Art Therapist Shimali Perera. There was a large crowd, but she made this big circle of people in an open air tent behind the Arcade feel like an intimate and safe space. She led us through some physical exercises, a meditation, and then a drawing exercise. We then shared our drawings and feelings with the group, and we all came away feeling safe, relaxed, and with more perspective.
Mental health has become a trending topic, and we at Sunayra are so glad to see that some of the stigma surrounding mental health issues is lessening. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case everywhere, and treatment or open discussion is still difficult to broach in some areas.
The key slogan is “Let’s Talk” – which, unlike some other health concerns, is the primary way to diagnose and treat depression. However, we can’t always sit down with someone and expect them to articulate their feelings. “Let’s talk” holds a larger meaning – it’s not just about one on one conversation, but about enabling people to talk about their lives, in whatever way possible. It urges people to open the avenues for self-expression, hearing others, and promoting change in communities and nations. We believe that when working with youth communities in Sri Lanka, talking is not always an option. This is why we have chosen creative means to open up those discussions. It allows the teens we work with to express whatever they want to in a safer space, through alternative means. Through group discussions, group activities, and creating art, they have opened up to us and expressed concerns about their life, communities, and futures.
We are not registered art therapists, but we can arm these young people with the tools they need to continue to discuss their feelings, be aware of their mental health, and approach their future in healthy and productive ways.