June 13, Colombo: Nivendra Uduman, Sara Nazoor and Ranil Thilakaratne has spent almost three months traveling Sri Lanka by foot. They have walked over 1,400 kilometers and touched more than half a million lives, all in an effort to erase the stigma and raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention.
On 12 June, they concluded the journey that began on 1 April 2018, returning home to Colombo's Independence Square. Back in Colombo, the trio was emotional as they reunited with friends, family and supporters who had gathered to welcome them back.
This is the second such journey for Nivendra, who undertook the first Footsteps to Freedom journey in 2016 with colleague Hansini Gunsekara. What he saw during this first 550 km walk inspired him to retrace his steps and charter a new path around Sri Lanka to reach more communities and people, he says.
The walk was held in aid of two charities working in the areas of emotional wellbeing and suicide prevention in Sri Lanka-Shanthi Maargam and CCCline 1333.
Everyone has their own struggle, says Nivendra, highlighting just how important it is to simply listen. "I met a deputy principal of a school who had been wheelchair bound since his childhood. He also had other health complications. When we had a conversation privately he spoke about thoughts he was having about ending his life due to his health issues and also about the positives in his life like his wife and family. This conversation really struck a chord with me because he said he felt like he released some of the burden he carried by talking to me and also the fact that I didn't feel sorry for him or express sympathy made him want to talk more. It was an inspiring conversation and I learnt how important it is, once again, to just stay put and listen."
Nivendra, Sara and Ranil conducted over a 100 workshops during their walk around Sri Lanka. Nivendra is a counselling psychologist while Sara Nazoor is a trainee psychologist. Ranil Thilakaratne is from CCCline 1333, an organization that works primarily in the area of suicide prevention.
With Sri Lanka reporting one of the highest incidences of suicide in the world, the need for better awareness on mental health is acute, they say.
Sara found herself listening to many women who revealed that they had suicidal thoughts.
"It was quite a grounding experience because as a young mental health worker there wasn't much I could do, but call and check up on them," she says. She also pointed to practical problems in the system that prevented better care.
"They didn't have mobile phones to call the help line numbers and while some were diagnosed with mental health issues, even then when they called the toll free number counsellors who could speak in Tamil weren't available. It was heart wrenching to know that at times I was the only person who was checking up on them."
Ranil also highlighted the need for better awareness of the services that exist to support those struggling with their mental health. "A 15-year-old girl had died by suicide, and it was harrowing to learn of her reason. She was a victim of rape and she felt that she would be blamed and judged for what happened to her even though it was beyond her control. People need to know about the services that are available. Please help us get the word out," he asked.