Is Sri Lanka mentally unstable?

Have you ever got the feeling that Sri Lankans are a weird bunch of people? Sexually abusing children within their own families; openly harassing women; throwing stones at dogs; walking past a man lying collapsed on the road; jumping a queue at every opportunity; stealing when we don’t need to; cheating each other at every given opportunity; hacking people to death over a boundary dispute where a few strands of barbed wire have been moved; starting a gang war over a school “Big Match”; having a fracas in the middle of a busy street because someone scratched the paint of our already totally scratched car; and most of all, lying about practically everything.

Even our Government seems unable to make up its collective mind – making ad hoc decisions about everything and then absurdly rolling back those decisions a few days later.

Not being psychologists or psychiatrists, we are not looking at it from a mental health perspective. Instead, we are looking at this from a lens of economic competitiveness, and would like to start a conversation about whether Sri Lanka needs to address our mental health issues in order to increase our competitiveness.


The economic impact of an unstable culture

We’re not psychiatrists or psychologists. But we are researchers who are able to identify issues and challenges.

The reason why we are bringing this topic to the discussion table is that it has a direct bearing on our competitiveness as a nation and as a working culture; at a time when competition is running high among nations for investment. As long as we ignore mental health as a major issue, we will never be a competitive nation.


The importance of mental health

The developed nations of the word have long recognised that their populations need to be as balanced as possible. It’s a matter that affects everything from political stability to law and order. In particular, it affects the economic competitiveness of a nation, to have a workforce that is as mentally stable as possible. You can’t have economic competitiveness if there are significant numbers in your population who are so unstable that they are suicidal, murderous, or apt to blow themselves up along with the people around them.


A taboo topic in Sri Lanka

A few people talk about mental health in our country. A few psychologists and psychiatrists do. But outside of that, there is little recognition that this is an important subject. We have known for decades that we have one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. But we have done next to nothing to address the underlying issues.

The list of mental conditions that could be easily applied to Sri Lankan society as a whole seems endless: alcoholism, narcotic addiction, mania, schizophrenia, pathological lying, depression, anxiety, panic, phobias, social anxiety, PTSD, kleptomania, pyromania, intermittent explosive disorder, narcissistic, psychotic, avoidant, chronic lateness disorder, avoidance of responsibility for decision making, etc.

One of the key problems is that Sri Lankan families do not deal with mental health issues of family members, and tend to cover them up instead. Not until a teenager drinks poison, stands in front of a train, or jumps off a cliff, a wife immolates herself, or a husband hacks his wife to death, does anyone acknowledge that there was a major problem. If a person becomes an embarrassment or a nuisance, we sometimes hand them over to “Angoda” – but that’s about all we generally do.

We have little practice of employing counsellors, psychiatrists, and psychologists, due to the social stigma involved. Even our corporate houses do not generally assist with the mental wellbeing of employees.


Types of mental illnesses

Mental illnesses are known to be numerous diverse conditions. The following are the most common:



According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), health as a “state of complete physical, mental, and social excellence and not merely absence of sickness or illness” is defined by psychological wellbeing. Drugs or alcohol abuse accounted for 178 million in 2018 and 20 million people were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Out of the projected 792 million people in the world, 264 million suffered from depression and a mental illness.

Although more efforts to improve mental health globally focus on improved treatment for people with psychological disorders, the WHO stresses that an extensive definition of mental health needs to be extended to include “subjective well-being, self-perception, autonomy, competence, intergenerational dependence, and recognition” beyond the lack or presence of diagnosable psychological disorders. Although the following modules will focus on the effects of psychological illnesses on public health, mental health programmes should use this broader concept of mental health.



Thirty years of gruesome war

First of all, we need to recognise that nearly 30 years of war, plus two failed Marxist revolutions, have left many Sri Lankans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And it’s not just the soldiers, rebels, and refugees. Practically every Sri Lankan suffered from stress during these decades, seeing gruesome footage on TV practically every day for three decades.

During this 30-year period, Sri Lankans became increasingly desensitised to violence and violent behaviour. The number of firearms in Sri Lankan society also increased dramatically, fuelled by the Government doling out weapons to many very dubious bodyguards of an enormous number of politicians, and also by military deserters selling their weapons. Police statistics stand witness to the massive increase in violent crime, and our Police in fact now regularly wear pistols, whereas in the pre-war years you could hardly find a policeman wielding a baton except in exceptional circumstances.


Social stigma of mental trauma patients

One of the most fundamental problems is that Sri Lanka’s culture is vastly intolerant of any person who is considered to have even the smallest psychological issue. “Angoda” and “pissa” are derogatory phrases used very often. 

Yet, who among us has not suffered from minor psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, panic, etc. due to an array of reasons, ranging from the deaths of loved ones to childbirth, abusive parents, abusive spouses, or the loss of a job?


The effects of the Covid pandemic

Today, people throughout the world are suffering the psychological effects of being locked up at home for weeks and months due to Covid lockdowns, coupled with the ever present threat of death from the virus. But little to nothing has been done to even acknowledge the fact that this may have major long-term effects, if not immediate effects, on the mental well-being of people.


What is mental health?

Our emotional, mental, and social well-being includes mental health. It influences our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It can also help identify how we deal with stress, connect, and make decisions with others. Mental health is critical throughout all phases of life from childhood to adulthood. Your ideas, attitude, and behaviour can alter throughout your life if you have problems with mental health. Mental health disorders are influenced by many circumstances, including:

  • Biological causes like genes or chemistry of the brain
  • Life events like trauma and abuse
  • Family history

The way we think, feel, and act relates to mental health. The most frequent mental health issues are anxiety and depression. Often they are a response to a painful event like grief, but they can also be triggered by work-related problems. This advice mainly talks about stress in the workplace but when stress continues, it can cause physical and psychological problems, including anxiety and depression.


Mental health and the workplace

It is easy to become a victim and not give yourself limits or reasonable expectations. You can think you devote too much, everyone wants you to spend long hours, and you have no time. Unmanageable workloads affect your office employees as well as your home as many unfinished jobs after working hours will be completed. The inability to shut off can have a severe impact on relations and certain employees may believe that their workload must first be a priority above personal life. This might result in increased tension and worry, which can make it difficult for your team to keep focused and motivated which in turn can affect performance. In a particular period, even the most efficient and hard-working workers are limited to what they can achieve. With many workers moved forward by the next chance to promote or to satisfy their manager, the additional work that is put on your desk can often be very tough to decline. However, late nights and pressure from all directions can drive certain people to get weary intellectually, emotionally, or physically. This can cause more absenteeism, accidents, and concentration deficiencies.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) strategy to manage stress connected to the workplace provides a framework to help employers address job-related problems and thereby limit the effects of mental disorders and adverse implications. The approach to management standards can assist employers to establish strategies for managing stress in the workplace correctly. Organisations are taking steps to minimise pressures, control stressors, and limit the adverse effects. Whether the work causes or worsens the health issue, employers are legally responsible for helping their employees. In order to estimate staff risks, work-related mental health problems have to be identified. In the event of a risk being detected, it has to be removed or reduced to a reasonable extent.


Assess yourself



How to be a positive person

If you change your negative attitude, you will be happier and more positive. The energy that you bring into the world is the energy that you get.


Halting comparisons

Most people now have access to photos, profiles and the lives of those that they had no notion of. Social media has enabled this and we urge you to understand that social media is “the best life” for everyone. Every day all people are struggling. Do not compare yourself with someone on Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram who looks glad, because they’re usually not in reality.


Be focused

You are immensely dissatisfied if you keep looking at the glass half empty and reflect on every unpleasant facet of your life. You will see a rapid shift in your mind and well-being if you adjust your perspective and start thinking about all the things you are grateful for!


Concentrate on the alternatives

If you continually focus on negativity and impossibilities, it’s not possible to have a more satisfied life. It will be, instead, a more healthy and joyful process to reflect on all the great prospects and thrilling results in your life. If you change your opinion, you will eventually become hopeful.


Mental fitness

Mental fitness helps you grasp the choice and teaches you to set limits. Better mental settings may be needed in this area for mental fitness.

The impact of mental health on staff and on how firms may manage their teams is vital to grasp. Well-being in the workplace is not just about physical well-being – food, exercise, good biometrics, sleep quality, etc.


Way forward

Not being mental health experts, we are throwing this topic out there into the public domain, in the hope that more qualified professionals will contribute to it and point the way forward towards building a population that is more mentally healthy and globally competitive.


© Niresh Eliatamby and Nicholas Ruwan Dias

(The writers are Managing Partners of, a consultancy that finds practical solutions for challenges facing society, the environment, and all types of industries. Dr. Dias is a digital architect and educationist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and can be contacted via Eliatamby is an author, journalist, and educationist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka and can be contacted via

(The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication)