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There is something about the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) in Angoda that can fascinate you. It can leave you in awe if you know that efforts are being made within this institute to cure patients first and foremost rather than deal with them.

Come October each year, the authorities here make it a point to educate the public about the fact that mental health must be in a balanced state, and a sizeable portion of the population is vulnerable to have an imbalance in the state of their minds.

As many as 80 per cent of the patients here are said be normal, but can have disturbed mental states depending whether it’s a good or bad day for them. Most of the creations that inmates of the hospital produce tell a story, or in other words give a glimpse into their lives which at sometime took a drastic turn for the worse. Employees at NIMH like Asoka Sanjeewa Vithanarachchi, who works as an occupational therapist, have dedicated their lives to work with patients and bring their lives to normalcy.

According to Asoka, patients are expected to take part in a walk, a concert and contribute to an arts and craft exhibition. These are some of the activities penned down in an agenda to mark World Mental Health Day which fell on October 10. These activities will be celebrated in Sri Lanka under the theme ‘Psychological and Mental Health First Aid’. The main purpose behind the effort is to make the public aware that people can be affected by mental health-related issues.

“The other reason is to show that mental patients like anybody else need love, affection and opportunities,” said Asoka.

world-mental-health-day-3Driving into NIMH was pretty easy. There were no checks by security. This is perhaps good in a way because it doesn’t give the impression that all patients are locked up and cut away from society. There may be a few who need to be under vigilance. But the majority seems to be guided on a path where there is a good possibility of seeing light at the other end of the tunnel. A little walk that one has to take to reach the wards gave a good enough view of what kind of world these inmates live in. Some of them were willing to talk to this writer. One guy wanted to sing a song for me. But there were strings attached. This one wanted some dough if he sang. He said he wanted to buy a bundle of betel. Something in me told me that ‘no’ should never be used and ‘may be in a little while when I come back this way’ would be a better answer.

“If people are educated about this disturbed state of mind which is caused by stress and anger, many of the problems can be prevented,” explained Asoka.

He went on to add that the definition for ‘health’ takes into consideration physical, social, spiritual and mental aspect of a human being. “Why neglect the mental aspect of it, then,” queried Asoka.

There is a drawing by a patient which suggests that this inmate has travelled on a path of peril. Two coconut trees, portrayed in the drawing, stand on a slope overlooking a rough sea. The land is unsteady, as much as the sea that is full of waves. “Once a patient receives treatment at Angoda, he or she has to live with social stigma. A patient might be cured and sent home. But if overcome by a bout of anger, loved ones might read the situation wrong and say that the patient is ill again. All work done with patients aim at generating a movement against this stigma,” said Asoka.

Asoka said that mental instability is often hereditary. “People in this group are classified as Predisposing. Then there are those who are vulnerable to get instable and are classified as precipitating. The third category involves those who were ill at one time and need to maintain their health,” he said.

Dilani de Silva, a former patient at NIMH, who has contributed soft toys and drawings for an exhibition connected to the ongoing World Mental Health Day celebrations, said that the inmates are often better than those who live outside. “Music and art as therapy coupled with the proper medications will help these wonderful humans get the best use of their great talents,” said Dilani.

The dream of guardians of these patients is to see them (inmates) return home. They know the rocky path these patients once strode, like caterpillars. This is why the authorities at NIMH took a decision to design the badge made for the occasion to resemble a butterfly.

Works-in-progress
Works-in-progress

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An NIMH staff member working on a creation that will be displayed at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition (Pics by Ravi agahawatte)
An NIMH staff member working on a creation that will be displayed at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition (Pics by Ravi agahawatte)