Mental Health Related Stigmas in The Sri Lankan Community

For those of you who aren’t aware, CMHA’s Mental Health Week is an annual national event that takes place during the first week of May. In honour of this week, and the importance of open dialogue, I will be sharing a mental health related post every day of this week. I know this week alone shouldn’t be the only time we talk about mental health, nor the only time to get loud about it. But, there’s no denying all the good that comes from a week like this. For this reason, I've decided to do my part in starting the conversation right here!

Throughout this week you'll find a variety of topics on this space. Mental health in the classrooms, everyday self-care tips, my own experience with anxiety, mental heath advocates to follow, how pups make great support systems (hehe), and much much more! I hope you'll join me, and I hope you'll start some meaningful conversations of your own. If you're reading this, and struggling right now, please know you're not alone. There is help. You are worthy. You are important. Your mental health matters. It matters to me, and a whole lot of other people. Please ask for help, it's out there. You don't have to do this alone. 

Having grown up in a Sri Lankan household, I really got to witness the stigma surrounding mental health. Mental health isn’t something that is talked about in our culture. For some it’s an "out of sight out of mind" thing. For other’s, they refuse to recognize it as being real. Physical illnesses are acknowledged, but mental illnesses are hardly ever talked about.  Sometimes I get so frustrated by this, but I quickly realize it's the lack of knowledge that has helped play a part in all the stigma. Mental illnesses, just like physical illnesses, should be made a priority. Yet, it's legitimacy is always in question. Diabetes, muscle pain, headaches, cholesterol .... Those are never, ever questioned.

I know it's not fair for me to lump everyone from the Sri Lankan community into this one-size-fit-all bubble. Of course not all Sri Lankan aunties and uncles are part of the problem. Nor am I saying, they're the only ones who hold such stigma. It's clear that eradicating stigma is something we need to work on as a whole, regardless of what community we're from. It's not just the stigma that infuriates me, it's the type of cultural upbringing that some Sri Lankan children experience that infuriates me. There is so much focus on social norms, that any resistance to those norms are deemed unacceptable. Pressures about doing well in school, comparing children with each other, and not recognizing burn out are all very much part of the problem. How many of you born in a Sri Lankan household were signed up for a long list of extracurriculars without any real interest in some of the things you were signed up for? Every other kid was doing it, why not you? That type of thinking is part of the problem. The resistance to any form of self-expression that isn't deemed conventional is part of the problem. Asking 30 year olds in the family why they aren't married yet is part of the problem. Pressure. There is so much pressure. Constant pressure. Unnecessary pressure that is forced upon a lot of us in this culture.... that is part of the problem. 

My mom, one of the most open minded individuals in my life,  had a hard time recognizing the consequences of burnout when I was a kid. This is a very small fraction of the type of pressure children in our culture face, but I know it's still happening today. In grade 11, when all the extracurriculars were starting to wear me down, I explained it to my parents. My dad understood, and started pulling me out of things that didn't interest me. I'm always grateful that my parents let me explore the arts and dedicated so much of their time and money in order for me to do so.  But, I'm mostly grateful that my parents recognized what I was saying, and didn't dismiss my feelings. I know this isn't the case for every kid growing up, and that is part of the problem. 

Parents need to listen to what their children are trying to say. Sisters, brothers, uncles, teachers, cousins need to listen to what the children in their lives are trying really hard to tell them (sometimes it's the things they don't say). As we age, it can become a little easier to find support because we can look for more open minded individuals we can connect with. But for children, sometimes we are all they've got. This isn't some sort of plea to parents to stop sending their kids to all these extracurriculars. It also isn't a guideline of what good parenting looks like. After all, love doesn't keep someone alive. This isn't about love at all. This is about being a nonjudgemental ear within our community because we all know we can use it. No matter how old we are, we can use it. If elders in our community are turning a blind eye to mental health challenges, that doesn't mean we should too. Just because our family members are spewing out misconceptions, doesn't mean we shouldn't take an initiative to educate them. Being a mental health advocate is NOT about diagnosing people. It's also NOT about providing good advice or free therapy. It is about having difficult conversations and helping people get help, from real professionals who know what they're doing.  It's about reminding people that it's okay not to be okay, and that their feelings and experiences are legitimate. 

Mental health related conversations need to be prioritized. Promoting mental wellness needs to become a family value, if you will. It needs to be something that is talked about. If you have no problem asking a friend or family member if they've eaten, you really should not have a problem asking them how they've been doing.  When we prioritize our own mental health, others will follow suit. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in this community, and it's amazing to see how far we've come. We've got a long ways to go, but I know we will get there. If we start these conversations right at home, I know we will. If you haven't checked in on someone, no matter how young or old they are, go do that right now. Do you have a younger cousin or sibling that you talk to often but you just haven't asked them how they're doing emotionally? Well, ask them. Ask them how they're really doing. You never know what kind of conversations will come up, or how much someone else needed to be asked. I'll wait. If you know someone who is currently struggling, and you're not sure what to say, just say hello. Send them a text, draw them a picture, put together a self-care box. Make that FaceTime call you've been meaning to make. Do something. I'll wait.  

— N


If you are struggling or feeling suicidal, or know someone who is, please reach out for help. In Canada, call Kids Help Phone at 1 (800) 668-6868 or visit the website to chat. Other general crisis lines in your community can be found here: 

A 24 year old Canadian living (& teaching) in Shenzhen, China.