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Sri Lanka Mental Health Relief Project

It’s been years since the tsunami took the lives of more than 300,000 unsuspecting residents of Southeast Asia. In December of 2004, the world watched in horror as every media outlet brought our attention to the suffering. But, even though the camera lenses have moved on to other crises, the suffering continues.

At the New Jersey Mental Health Institute (NJMHI), we immediately recognized that the pain of this tragedy would remain after the debris was removed and the homes are rebuilt. At the time, both the immediate and long-term mental health needs of the tsunami survivors were unlike anything the world had ever seen.

In response, NJMHI created the Tsunami Mental Health Relief fund and project to transport and support mental health experts who volunteered to go to devastated regions of Sri Lanka to train local counselors, the medical community, teachers and religious and local leaders, which have helped make a difference in Sri Lanka.

In 2005, a NJMHI team traveled to Sri Lanka for two weeks to provide training. More than 100 Sri Lankans – eager for any mental health information they could obtain – attended the two free workshops. The number of attendees was nearly double the number expected, and no one was turned away from the three-day sessions.

Barbara Maurer, an expert trainer with extensive experience in trauma treatment, and Veronica Jayagoda, who served as a cultural ambassador and helped bridge the language and cultural divide, were deeply affected by the experience and the lingering pain they witnessed. They visited four camps where displaced families received barely enough food to survive and awaited the reconstruction of their homes. One distressed parent confided, “I once had four children, but I could only hold on to one.” Children who lost both parents had to grow up too quickly, caring for their younger siblings and struggling to maintain hope. Obviously, the pain of these losses and the continuing displacement will have a severe lifelong impact on the mental health of the survivors.

Many of the trainees had lost family members themselves, yet were eager to work in the camps to alleviate the suffering of others. When Barbara and Veronica began each of the training sessions, they felt a great sense of despair. However, after only three days, there was more positive energy and a greater sense of hope. In the southern region, attendees agreed to meet once a month to work on solutions to the ongoing problems and to develop a support system for one another and those they serve.

The training began the process, focusing attention on the long-term effects of trauma and helping service providers understand the impact of grief and trauma, identify people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and to understand the interventions that are available. But, the work had only begun. Attendees requested additional training to enable them to provide various forms of treatment to foster the healing process.

NJMHI planned to return to Sri Lanka as soon as it was financially feasible and safe to provide additional training and assistance. However, this was not practical due to political unrest at the time. Therefore, NJMHI developed trilingual educational brochures that were sent to and distributed in Sri Lanka in 2012 as a supplement to the training that was provided earlier. NJMHI has received positive feedback on these materials.

In light of the fact that other situations could have similarly traumatic effects on individuals, the name of the project has been changed to the Sri Lanka Mental Health Relief Project.
A tax-deductible donation of any size can make a tremendous impact. Make your check payable to the New Jersey Mental Health Institute, with “Sri Lanka Mental Health Relief Project” written in the memo line. Mail to The New Jersey Mental Health Institute, The Neuman Building, Suite 102, 3575 Quakerbridge Road, Mercerville, NJ 08619. If you have questions call us at 609-838-5488, ext. 207.