Footsteps to Freedom: On the road to save a life | Sunday Observer

Footsteps to Freedom: On the road to save a life

27 May, 2018

“Footsteps to Freedom is important because we get to connect heart to heart with people, be it at a Thambili kade, or the bus stop. We get the opportunity to really listen to people. It is also an opportunity to shatter the stigma around mental health problems and suicide in our country, through education and empowerment. Our focus is to get the word out, get people talking and create a culture of emotional hygiene, one step at a time, “says Counselling psychologist, Nivendra Uduman.

Uduman, with two others, Sara Nazoor , a trainee Psychologist and Ranil Thilakaratne, from the CCCline1333 is on a walk titled ‘Footsteps to Freedom’ to raise awareness on suicide prevention and mental health among Sri Lankans. “We are currently in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka and are shortly starting our descent via the west coast to Colombo. It’s been an amazing journey so far, with it’s peaks and valleys,” says Uduman.

Suicide in Sri Lanka is a common cause of unnatural death and a long term social issue. Numbers compiled annually by the Sri Lanka Police Division Statistics show that the suicide rate has actually fallen by 70 percent since the mid-1990s rating Sri Lanka’s suicide rate closer to the 22nd highest in the world. About 14 or 15 persons in every 100,000 Sri Lankans commit suicide. In 1997, Sri Lanka became the first country in the rating of suicides, with around 47 in every 100,000 committing suicide.

But in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, only five or 10 in 100,000 Sri Lankans committed suicide. Depression and disorders caused by the use of alcohol are two main factors that encourage suicide. Most young people commit suicide due to difficulty of tolerating distress associated with an interpersonal conflict. Most adults commit suicide due to depression.

In an interview over the phone with the Sunday Observer, Uduman said, Footsteps to Freedom was founded in 2016, when he walked from Dondra to Point Pedro in 44 days, covering 550km to raise awareness on mental health. “I was inspired by Maj. Ruvan Ranatunga who had walked across Sri Lanka in 2014. The first walk was a success with over 100 awareness programs done. Information on services available in Sri Lanka was shared with people I met along the way and my intention was to at least save one life,” says Uduman.

“Last year (2017) I began developing an itch to get out on the road again, this time to connect with more people from different cultures, religions and geographic locations. I wanted to really see Sri Lanka, savour her sights, sounds, smells and vibes and also do what I am passionate about in the process- to raise awareness on suicide prevention and mental health,” says Uduman.

He said, he is lucky this year to have two other equally passionate people joining him, Sara Nazoor and Ranil Thilakaratne. “Footsteps to Freedom is supported by two organizations this year, CCCline1333 and Shanthi Maargam. Both organizations work very actively towards improving mental health and psycho social well-being of people in Sri Lanka. Suicide prevention is also a core area of interest. Footsteps to Freedom-II is a 72 day walk around the coastline of the country to raise awareness on suicide prevention and mental health,” he added.

“We have had 65 awareness programs so far, at hospitals, schools, police stations, post offices, District Secretariat Offices and Community Centres.

Our target audience can be anyone, ranging from children to older adults. We have tailor made sessions to deliver to these different groups. We are a trilingual team this year, so our work is impactful. Our hope is to save at least one life, through education and awareness about mental health, suicide prevention and also about services available,” says Uduman.

He believes, they have already touched the lives of people, some of whom were considering ending their lives, when they met them. They were able to provide emotional first aid and refer them on for professional support. “The feeling of having potentially saved a life is something no one can take away from you,” he says.

When questioned about the challenges they face during the journey, he says, a journey of this nature comes with its fair share of challenges and difficulties. “We have left behind our families, partners, jobs, and our comfort zones and thrown ourselves head on into the unknown. Every new day is an experience, and of course, a challenge. Sara married the love of her life, one week before the walk began and it is a challenge for both her and her partner who is in Colombo. Ranil, left behind his son and wife, who he misses a great deal. I miss my family, my home and my partner, who is overseas. It’s a tough journey, but we soldier on,” he added.

“The heat has been our worst enemy, sometimes dehydrating us, but, we crack jokes at each other, annoy each other, and keep on, supporting each other in our own way. The passion we have for what we do keeps us moving and the love we have for Sri Lanka, motivates us to do what we do. The response we have received so far has been very positive,” Uduman says.

He says, people stop them on the road, talk to them, and even go to the extent of treating them to a cup of tea. “The kindness we have seen along the way has been very heart warming. We were rejected only by one hospital, while everyone else has been very accommodating and interested. We sometimes do unplanned sessions, where we would for example, walk into a school, speak to the Principal and before you can say Jack Robinson, we have a session,” he said.

“People have spoken to us about their personal problems, opened up to us, and we have been able to refer them on for support. We have also received immense support from the military, police, hospital staff and of course the random man you meet on the road. All districts lack awareness. There is very little being done to educate the public on mental health. Information does not flow out of Colombo,” he mentioned.

“People who will benefit from this walk, may not be obvious right now, but would emerge slowly, when there will be a time they require support, and then they will know where to find it. Service providers like nurses and police personnel have been educated on how to recognize warning signs, how to provide basic mental health first aid and this will help them help others,” Uduman explained.

Uduman says that he hopes to continue this campaign even after the walk is over, by going back to certain areas to deliver workshops and training programs. “We have had many requests so far. We also hope to share our observations and learning with those who are responsible for looking after the mental health of our people. We mainly speak about suicide prevention at our awareness sessions, and that would include breaking the myths and misconceptions around suicide and then educating people on how to identify warning signs. We also focus on teaching people skills on basic mental health first aid, so that they can support each other before accessing professional support,” he said.

“We do sessions on stress management, coping skills and addiction. Our sessions are interactive, engaging and we blend in activities that keep people interested and engaged. We also provide information on Help lines available in the country at these sessions. Our mission will complete in 72 days. We began the walk on April 1, 2018 (Sunday) and hope to complete it on June 10, 2018. We started from Mount Lavinia and the walk will culminate at Independence Square,” he added.