Footsteps to Freedom: Shattering the stigma around mental health | Sunday Observer

Footsteps to Freedom: Shattering the stigma around mental health

1 April, 2018
Cross Country Walk in 2016
Cross Country Walk in 2016

Footsteps to freedom, the coast-to-coast walk and fundraiser on mental health awareness, kicked off this morning in Mount Lavinia. This year, the focus of the Walk will be mainly on suicide prevention, since this is a major public health concern in Sri Lanka, says founder of the concept, Counselling Psychologist, Nivendra Uduman

For Counselling Psychologist Nivendra Uduman, shattering stigma is what Footsteps to Freedom II is all about. Two years ago, Uduman did a cross country walk from Dondra in the south to Point Pedro in the Jaffna District, to raise awareness on the same issue. The focus of the second coastal walk that kicked off at Mount Lavinia today will be suicide prevention, since the issue has become a major public health problem in Sri Lanka.

The purpose of this year’s Walk is to bring the community together to banish the stigma surrounding mental health issues. “We aim to tell people that it is okay to be not okay, and that it is okay to seek help for mental health problems. Most importantly, we aim at shattering the stigma that surrounds mental health problems and suicide in our country,” Uduman says.

He also promises sessions for the hearing impaired community, for caregivers of children with intellectual disability, caregivers of those living with mental health problems and for government officials including police and hospital staff.

Uduman says, this year’s Walk will lack frills and fancies. “Instead, we will be interacting with the community as much as possible, staying with them, eating with them, and of course, providing information on mental health and suicide prevention as we go along. We want to connect heart to heart with the people,” he says.

Uduman hopes to enrich this year’s endeavour with the knowledge and passion of his team members.

He says, he has an amazing team this time, with Ranil Thilakaratne from the CCCline1333 and Trainee Psychologist, Sara Nazoor, joining him for the entire Walk. The trio hopes to walk 1,400 plus kilometers across the country this time.

“ We are great together, we are already good friends and have worked together in different capacities in the past. The knowledge, experience, and passion we share will definitely add so much more meaning to this endeavour,” Uduman says, adding that, one exciting fact about this year’s Walk is the team being trilingual, which will help them reach out to many more communities out there.

Uduman says, the Walk will contribute towards suicide prevention by providing information about how people can identify warning signs, how they can provide basic mental health first aid, and then make referrals for professional support. This year, in addition to Ranil and Sara, there will also be scouts from different districts they are walking through, as well as users of mental health services, and members of the general public, joining them at different stages.

How the walk began

The Walk began 6 am this morning from the Mount Lavinia Supermarket junction, and will be making their first stop at Panadura. The walk will continue through the Southern coast, and then hit the East coast through Pothuvil. Then, they will walk right up to Mullaitivu before cutting across to A9 road to reach Palali. They will continue across Chavakachcheri and come back through the West coast passing Mannar and Puttalam to Colombo. “We have sessions planned along the way, and in addition there will be many impromptu awareness sessions conducted. If all goes well, we hope to end the walk on June 12,” he says.

It was when Uduman was involved in flood rescue work back in 2016, that the concept first dawned on him. “While there, I met Major Ruwan Ranatunga (ex-army personnel) ,who told me his story of walking across Sri Lanka to raise funds for a cancer charity, in 2014. This story really inspired me, and I thought why not embark on a journey like this for mental health,” Uduman says. Since mental health is something I am passionate about and Sri Lanka is a country I love, it just took off from there, he adds. Accordingly, Footsteps for Freedom had its maiden cross country walk last year.

Uduman believes, he was able to contribute towards preventing at least one person from suffering in silence through last year’s walk. “That is success for me,” he says. People he met along the way were given resources from who they can seek help for emotional difficulties. Also, Uduman says, there were over 100 awareness raising sessions done in 44 days, and that, in it self, was a major achievement. “Walking 550km for someone who absolutely detested walking before, was also a highlight,” he adds.

Speaking of taking the concept forward in the future, Uduman says, he hopes to continue reaching out to communities they meet on the walk, and provide more sustainable services and education on mental health and psychosocial well-being. “We also hope to push the authorities responsible to improve accessibility to mental health services around the country,” he says. He insists Footsteps to Freedom is only a beginning and there is so much more work to be done with the support of the community. Uduman emphasizes that suicide prevention and mental health is everyone’s responsibility.

“Look after yourself, look after each other, and let’s shatter the stigma together,” he says.