Walkers return determined that the journey must go on | Sunday Observer

Walkers return determined that the journey must go on

The ‘Footsteps to Freedom II’ trio of walkers led by counselling psychologist, Nivendra Uduman, returned to Colombo after a 73-day walk around the country raising awareness on suicide prevention and mental health and, jubilant that they may have helped to save lives along the way

After completing a gruelling 73- day walk around Sri Lanka to create awareness on mental health and suicide prevention, Nivendra Uduman, Ranil Prasad Thilakaratne and Sara Inshira Nazoor are back in Colombo. Counselling psychologist, Nivendra Uduman spoke to the Sunday Observer about his journey and shared his experiences with us. He said that it is difficult to find words to describe such a surreal experience. “I am still processing the journey that Ranil, Sara and I completed. There is so much that took place in those 73 days, so many lives that we touched and possibly changed and our own personal growth and development that happened. The journey was tough, with numerous challenges and struggles, and every day was a mixture of intense heat, miles of walking, aches and pains, laughter, supporting each other and of course talking to people about mental health and suicide prevention,” he said.

According to Nivendra, he feels that this journey was a start to something much larger and the journey must go on. “This work is not easy to do alone, therefore, community involvement is so very important,” he says.

When asked as to how far he thinks that the journey was a success, Nivendra said that he is confident that ‘Footsteps to Freedom-II’ was a success, not just because they completed 73 days of walking and 100+ awareness programs but because they might have managed to save lives.

“Simple acts like listening, expressing empathy, and hearing people’s stories from a space of authenticity, with a non-judgmental attitude, helped people unburden themselves, on the road and at our awareness sessions. There were no fancy interventions, or textbook style methods. We just listened, listened deeply and held space for people, to speak about whatever they wanted to speak about,” he said.

Nivendra explains how a quick pit stop for a drink of king coconut during their walk towards Buttala had given them an opportunity to counsel a stranger.

“Ranil, Sara and I were walking to Buttala, which is near Moneragala and it was a terribly hot day. We were feeling quite dehydrated and drained, that we just had to stop for a thambili break. It was a small roadside ‘kade’ and we hung around for a while until the owner approached us and went on to give us thambili to drink. He was curious about what we were up to, and when we told him that we were walking to raise awareness on suicide prevention and mental health, he said ‘Sir, I am having thoughts about suicide right now’.

Nivendra said the man’s words struck him, since he had blurted this out without any small talk as a prelude. The owner of the little shop was experiencing difficulties with his physical health which was preventing him from working on his farm and consequently, he was faced with economic difficulties. Chronic pain, and not being able to find solutions to his health problems were his reasons for wanting to take his life. “Ranil and I just listened, and we let him unburden. We provided basic emotional first aid, and were able to direct him towards help and care. He still calls us to tell us how he is doing,” narrated Nivendra.

He said that he met a 16-year-old girl at a school close to Negombo, and she had lost a family member to suicide two months ago and was grieving. “The family did not have much support, and she was still processing what had happened. I did not try to take her pain away from her, but acknowledged that it is okay, to feel what she was feeling, as she had lost someone dear to her and suicide is most often difficult to comprehend and accept. She was given information on how she can access counselling services in her area,” he added.

“We met a teacher at a school close to Puttalam. He has been wheel-chair bound since his childhood, and was experiencing several health problems when we met him. He also had contemplated ending his life several times, due to different reasons, including not wanting to be a burden to others, especially his family. I listened to him for about two hours, just listened. He said that the fact that I did not express sympathy towards him or say ‘aney pau’ made him want to talk to me, and that he felt relieved after talking. This really did give me a great deal of perspective and was a stark reminder about how important it is to, just shut up and listen. There is so much to learn from the people you talk to,” described Nivendra.

While they were still walking, Nivendra says he heard that people were calling Helplines run by the CCCline1333, Sumithrayo and ShanthiMaargam, after receiving the cards they were giving out with the helpline numbers printed on them. It was heartening, the psychologist says, to note that people had a source of hope in the form of those cards, which many of them had put in their wallets for a rainy day.

“Footsteps to Freedom” was not just about walking 1400+km, it was very much about helping people find hope. It was about letting people know that there is support available and that they are not alone,” he explained.

During their 73-day walk, the three walkers estimate they reached approximately 500,000 people, not only through awareness programs but also on the road itself. Focusing mostly on schools, the trio conducted over 100 sessions on topics like mental health awareness, suicide prevention, addiction, stress management, bullying prevention and motivation as they traversed the coastline. “We spoke to people at schools, police stations, mosques, district secretariat offices, community centres, military camps, hospitals and post offices, tea shops and thambili kades.

We also connected with the hearing-impaired community and people with disabilities. It was the first time in 20 years that the hearing-impaired community had someone to talk to about mental health. This was big thing for us,” he added.

Coming back was also emotional for the three walkers, who received a very warm welcome from their families, friends and the public who had followed their progress around Sri Lanka’s coast. “It was very moving to come back home, to see our families. We also had a great team that supported us right along the way and it was good to be reunited with them,” Nivendra says.

The team’s future plans include going back to some of the places they visited, to do more work in those communities. They would also focus on doing extensive work with the hearing impaired community, and advocate for more services to be available to them.

As for his fellow travellers, Nivendra acknowledges that Ranil and Sara have become a family to him during their 73 days on the road. “Ranil, Sara and are one family.

We lived together, walked together, ate together and slept together for 73 days. There were times when we annoyed each other, but that was all part of the journey. The passion, commitment and the love for Sri Lanka and its people that we share kept us going, even through the hardest of times. We took care of each other, gently pushed each other and completed the journey together. I believe that we will be friends for the rest of our lives,” he says with a smile.

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