SCORE, Through Partner Shanthiham, Increases Access to Mental Health Services During Covid-19 Lockdown and Beyond

By Kathya de Silva Senarath

The Covid-19 pandemic is not only a health issue— it is also an economic issue with businesses declaring bankruptcy and many losing livelihoods due to lockdowns and other disruptions to the economy. While significant focus must remain on addressing economic shocks and treating the physically ill, the pandemic’s impact on mental health also requires priority attention.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Covid-19 has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in many countries already, and demand continues to increase. WHO adds that the coronavirus  has reduced access to mental health services and that “bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones,” adding  that individuals  may face increased levels of alcohol and drug use, insomnia, and anxiety, and that COVID-19 itself can lead to additional neurological and mental complications. People with pre-existing mental, neurological or substance use disorders are even more vulnerable to infection and severe outcomes.

Where the need for mental health services is severe, USAID-funded Social Cohesion and Reconciliation’s (SCORE) strategic partner Shanthiham engages in life-saving mental health programs to support those affected by the pandemic. Its primary focus last year was on providing psychosocial support to conflict-affected resettled families in the Jaffna district through its ‘core group,’ which was tasked with identifying persons needing psychosocial support and referring them to counseling. When the pandemic hit the island and Covid-19 cases became prevalent  in the Jaffna district, Shanthiham refocused to support pandemic-affected communities by employing different methods to reach those suffering, all while working through  various quarantine restrictions.

For example, Shanthiham immediately shifted to remote counseling. Clients reaching Shanthiham via telephone and social media such as Viber and WhatsApp receive counselling and are referred to other institutions and services as needed. Counselors can be reached via phone from 8 am to 10 pm seven days a week. Shanthiham’s social media platforms carry messages informing the public of this new service. The SCORE partners also carried out a sticker campaign in August in public transportation about Covid-19 awareness with key telephone numbers for help. Stickers were displayed in over 200 public and private buses. Shanthiham also published counseling service notices in the front pages of regional newspapers and, telecast them in the regional DAN TV during popular programs for wider reach. With these campaigns, Shanthiham received nearly 100 new clients during the March to May lockdown, all while nearly 50 existing clients continued to receive counseling. At present, Shanthiham receives an average of 10 calls per week.

A client from Tellipalai in Jaffna said she was frustrated as she had no one to talk to about her financial problems during the lockdown period. “I wanted to talk to someone and get some mental support to cope during this period. No one reached out to us to ask whether we have eaten or not. Even my relatives didn’t call and didn’t want to help us. When Shanthiham called us and inquired about our struggle, we felt better and happier,” she said.

Nadarajah Yogarani, a counsellor working with Shanthiham said she helped a distressed woman who delivered a baby during the lockdown period. “She was so helpless with her financial situation, and claimed that no one treated her family as human beings and never responded her phone calls. She was so happy that we spoke to her and guided her on what she could do,” said Yogarani. “I helped her out by giving dry food items and a hygiene pack from Shanthiham. I also helped her to receive a pregnancy emergency pack from the Public Health Inspector of the division. She was so grateful.”

Shanthiham also assists schoolchildren as they cope with the numerous stresses brought on by the pandemic. One instance was when an Advanced Level student was referred to Shanthiham during the recent curfew due to his anxiety to sit for the examination. However, Shanthiham’s counseling motivated him and he built up the courage to face the exam.

And, in order to create awareness of the mental health impact of COVID 19, Shanthiham facilitated panel discussions on the regional IBC web TV and DAN TV in May and October. These can be viewed at here.

In addition, several articles were carried in regional newspapers on the same theme along with the contact numbers for counselling.

Shanthiham also supported SCORE’s island-wide emergency response in the beginning of the year to support preschools in Jaffna by facilitating trainings for teachers to identify behavioural changes among children after the lockdown and help children adapt to the ‘new normal.’ Seventy eight preschool teachers from Jaffna participated in this training. Shanthiham also supported SCORE in setting up hand washing facilities and displaying child-friendly Covid-19 awareness messages in preschools in the Jaffna district.

SCORE’s strategic partner thus adapted to the demands for mental health services during these uniquely trying times and supported hundreds in the district to cope with stresses stemming from the coronavirus. The prompt response to increase access to healing services greatly helped strengthen affected communities and enhance their resilience.

Read more about our work in Sri Lanka here.

Region: Asia, Sri Lanka
Area of expertise: Covid-19, Psychosocial Support