My Post War Outreach Experience

Whilst on a 6 week Mental Health Placement in Sri Lanka, I had the opportunity to go on the Post War Outreach field trip in the north of the country. Having previously been pretty ignorant of the conflict in the north, I was unsure what to expect on this trip and completely unaware of the trauma that was affecting such a large proportion of the community. After quite a road trip we arrived in the smartest clothes we could throw together and met the psychiatrist responsible for so much of the mental health treatment in the north of the country.

After a brief explanation from him on the broad range of work he does as the only qualified psychiatrist in the district, we jumped back in the mini bus and headed far away from the main town to a hospital in a very remote location. Here we observed his interaction with about 25 clients, who were there to attend the drop-in clinic the doctor himself had started. This was fascinating to say the least. To see how symptoms of ill mental health manifest themselves in this completely different culture and listening to the heart breaking stories of the clients so affected by circumstance was a really emotional experience for all involved.

Each client would come to sit with the doctor and explain his or her symptoms. The doctor translated for us along the way, then after assessing the clients, would then provide them with a diagnosis (if they were a new client) and then prescribe treatment. It really highlighted the importance of the doctor’s presence within these communities where trauma is rife and the lack of resources is so prominent. We were given the opportunity to give our own input on his diagnoses and treatment plans, as well as being able to ask questions, which is something you’d never be able to do in the west.

Once all the clients in this drop-in clinic had been seen, we got back in the minibus (after a quick bite to eat) and went to a different clinic, where we observed appointments with clients from another nearby area. Here we listened to similar harrowing stories of loss, but were also inspired by the individuals who had continued to strive to make a life for themselves in the aftermath of such conflict. Something that really surprised me was how many clients were displaying psychosomatic symptoms, experiencing physical aches and pains, for psychological illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression. It was explained that this was partially to do with the fact that there simply isn’t the language for emotions and feelings, so psychological symptoms were manifesting themselves in a physical manor.

Another thing I found particularly striking at these drop-in clinics was how many people were present. Even those not seeking treatment, including family members and friends, were there listening to each individual’s experiences, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment plan. Back here in the UK, confidentiality agreements would never allow this, and whilst at first I had my reservations about how ethical this was, I soon realised that the huge cultural differences actually allowed for, and left room for this. It really illustrated the collectivism of the culture in Sri Lanka, creating a room full of support and a real sense of community for everybody.

In addition to the shadowing experience, it was a real privilege to get to travel the north of the country, as I was able to explore and to visit Jaffna, which until very recently was off limits to tourists. This beautiful part of the country is too far to reach on a weekend, so having the opportunity to experience this part of Sri Lanka was a real treat. The things I saw and experienced on this trip gave me such a deeper understanding about how mental health treatment works in a totally different culture and also gave me a greater understanding of the obstacles people in other countries face when it comes to seeking treatment for mental illness. It was certainly an experience I’ll never forget.

If you’re joining us in Sri Lanka this summer and want to be part of this awesome experience you can find more information on our website. 

If you’ve go any questions please email us on info@slv.global or call us on +442070961718