Don’t shun mental disorders, says Dr. Sugi | Sunday Observer

Don’t shun mental disorders, says Dr. Sugi

4 September, 2022

Recent statistics by the World Health Organization have revealed that one in eight people live with a mental health disorder. Dr. Sugandika T. Subawickrama, known as Dr. Sugi talks to the Youth Observer about mental health in this day and age.

Specializing in the areas related to substance abuse, she is passionate to promote and encourage communities to be open about mental health without looking at it as a stigma. Dr Sugi highlighted that mental health should be spoken about with teenagers too.

How important is Mental Health in this day and age?

A: A recent World Health Organization (WHO) report shows that one in eight people live with a mental disorder. According to the Centers for Diseases Control, mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Mental health impacts our daily functioning and affects our thought patterns, feelings, and behaviour.

Unfortunately, most people still mainly focus on physical health and do not pay much attention to their mental health. Furthermore, mental health impacts every stage of life, including childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. We must develop healthy coping mechanisms to cope with stressful situations, which will help to better manage the situation. In addition to physical activities in the 21st century, we also need to incorporate healthy mental health habits to better ourselves and enhance our life satisfaction.

What are the basic ways of identifying mental health issues, and when should one reach out for help?

A: Each individual is unique; therefore, our behaviour and reactions may differ in each situation. “Behavior” is a key component of recognizing mental illness. At the same time, identifying the difference between expected behaviour and signs of a mental illness is challenging. In addition, each individual has a better understanding of themselves.

As we are all aware, multiple factors can contribute to mental illness, such as trauma, abuse, chronic medical conditions, substance use, environmental and biological factors, and many more. Also, there are multiple signs of mental illness, and each mental illness has its symptoms.

Evidence-based literature identified a few common symptoms including excessive sadness, excessive worrying, extreme mood changes, avoiding family, friends, and regular social activities, thinking about suicide, and changes in their sex drive. Also, to note, children’s mental health signs and behaviour are different than adults.

For example, If I am worried about my child’s safety and well-being, I may not send them to school or do activities outside the house. Taking an extreme approach can negatively impact our daily functioning and may be a sign of mental health challenges.

When you are feeling like your excessive thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are negatively impacting your daily behaviour, you may need to reach out for professional help. Sometimes a lack of awareness or stigma within our society leads to not openly discussing mental health or reaching out for mental health professional services.

In the past few years, with the pandemic and everything that is happening now. How has it affected mental well-being?

A: I received multiple messages, emails, and comments from people living in Sri Lanka “Aiyo..these days going crazy” and “Kids getting very angry for no reason.” It means people are starting to understand their daily behaviour and reactions and have noticed that things are changing due to the current situation. Are we openly talking about it? As we know, Covid had an impact on people’s mental health not only in Sri Lanka but all over the world as well. Did we implement strategies to create awareness of mental illness and coping strategies?

A lack of resources and health inequities will create a stressful situation among individuals. In addition, this is an unexpected situation; therefore, most of the time, individuals are not aware of how to react to it. When people have unmet basic needs, it adversely impacts them physically and mentally.

As most of us are aware of Maslow’s hierarchy, he stated that when individuals are unable to meet basic needs, it can lead to mental health challenges. The biggest challenge is that no one talks about how these situations can create mental health challenges and how to develop healthy coping mechanisms, even though it’s an essential need in Sri Lanka now.

There are healthy coping mechanisms available including getting enough sleep, meditation (relaxation), gardening (therapeutic & healthy eating), using peer support and connecting with people who can motivate you (enhance self-confidence), listening to music, doing some physical activities, and writing in a diary.

Dr. Sugandika T. Subawickrama

Personal care is also an essential component, ‘ME time’, which can impact positive mental health. Lastly, it is important to make sure that individuals are aware of organizations that can provide help if needed.

How important is it to promote mental health in school and for teenagers?

A: It is a must. We often cannot identify teenagers’ mental health challenges because we label them as “Oh! You know they are teens now; you know how they do things.” At the same time, adolescents with mental health problems could lead to multiple challenges in school, and in their relationships with peers and society.

When we are able to promote mental health in schools, it will lead to healthy social and emotional growth, effective communication skills, personality development, and the development of healthy coping mechanisms in children and adolescents.

As you may know, talking about Mental Health is shunned in Sri Lankan society, largely because they are afraid of negative feedback, attitude, and perception of the community, culture, and traditions.

If our school system can introduce activities that create a safer environment, children and adolescents in every grade level can discuss and create awareness and promote mental health, which will lead to physically and mentally healthy children and adolescents.

I believe this mental health awareness and discussion should start among leaders and educators in schools because they are the first line of defence for their students, and they may have a better understanding of their students.

The early intervention process will help mitigate adverse outcomes in the future. For example, when I was young, I was bullied due to my skin colour; I cried a lot, and my support system was my mother. Today, due to high social media presence, negative feedback can lead to devastating outcomes. My proposed solution is that mental health education needs to be mandated within the school system.

Mental health is a learning process, and you are constantly on a path of research; tell us a bit about it?

A: I learned multiple lessons throughout this process, working for more than 20 years in the mental health and behavioural health field in various countries. First and foremost, we need to focus on stigma. We need to have an open dialogue about mental health. Educating and enhancing mental health knowledge is more essential than ever.

Our society has multiple myths, negative attitudes, and perceptions about mental health.

What if we start a small campaign aimed at creating mental health awareness on social media amongst Sri Lankans? That is why I started my YouTube channel two years ago,” Dr.Sugi and Mental Health ‘Dr. Sugi’s path to a healthy mind’ to enhance knowledge about mental health in my capacity and give back to my country through my knowledge and experiences. It is not one person’s responsibility. We all need to incorporate our abilities as much as we can. It will lead to a better and healthier nation.