Notes from the Field

Providing Psychosocial Services in Sri Lanka

January 13, 2010

May 2009 marked the end of Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil conflict that left thousands dead and many more displaced from the fighting. Most of those affected, both Tamil and Sinhalese, come from the ranks of the poor. While large numbers of those displaced begin to make their way back home and the nation readies for a presidential election, much work needs to be done to heal the wounds inflicted from the trauma that communities have endured.

In any endeavor to rebuild a nation, a society’s emotional well-being is critical to ensure a healthy population, especially one that has experienced suffering of such magnitude as in Sri Lanka. To help communities affected by conflict-related violence, The Asia Foundation is partnering with two local NGOs on a program called RESIST, or “Reducing the Effects & Incidents of Trauma,” which helps increase access to psychosocial services. The partners are the Family Rehabilitation Centre (FRC) and Shanthiham (The Association for Health and Counselling).

Services are available in seven districts in the north and east regions, including Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Ampara.

Many of Sri Lanka's displaced families have only recently returned to their homes, such as this Tamil woman and child from the Batticaloa district in the east.

Many of Sri Lanka's displaced families have only recently returned to their homes, such as this Tamil woman and child from the Batticaloa district in the east. (Photo by Karl Grobl.)

Over the last four years, the program, with support from USAID and the European Commission, has supported Tamil, Sinhala, and Muslim communities, including war widows, bomb blast survivors, trauma survivors (including torture), and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The program works to reduce trauma by providing psychosocial services such as counseling and medical support (including physiotherapy), yoga and relaxation techniques, befriending, raising awareness of the consequences of conflict-related violence, and assistance with referrals to established government and other NGO services.

Working alongside existing government services such as mental health mobile clinics, RESIST fills a particular gap with its more holistic, long-term approach to counseling. Part of the program’s success is from the development of client-intake forms, created by counselors with guidance from Dr. Jon Hubbard, RESIST’s international advisor from the Centre for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis. Counselors use the forms to gather demographic information from clients and to assess their ability to perform key life tasks at intake (when clients first arrive) and at two other time intervals during their stay (3 months and 6 months). This information helps counselors track client improvement and guides them on which issues need further discussion with clients. Unlike with some other counseling programs, a client’s family members may attend all RESIST programs.

Last year, the Ministry of Social Services and Social Welfare and the National Institute of Social Development, with support from The Asia Foundation, initiated a 6-month outreach diploma course in counseling for 40 psychosocial volunteers working in the Internally Displaced Persons’ welfare centers in Vavuniya. These volunteers will continue to work with the displaced families upon return to their original villages. Lecturers from the National Institute of Social Development will conduct the courses and will also be available for NGO and government officers working in the Northern districts of Sri Lanka.

Marion Staunton is a Program Director and Mihiri Ferdinando is a Program Officer in The Asia Foundation’s Sri Lanka office. They can be reached at mstaunton@asiafound.org and mferdinando@asiafound.org, respectively.

View all posts by Marion Staunton

View all posts by Mihiri Ferdinando

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