Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in Sri Lanka: What’s Missing and What Can The Wave Offer?

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In Sri Lanka, mental health problems are common among young people. Children and adolescents may have emotional or behavioural problems that affect their quality of life and the way they relate to others.

As with everywhere in the world, many young people also have neurodevelopmental disorders, affecting the way they interact with the world. These young people often require additional support so they can flourish in a society that may not respect or understand their needs.

Unfortunately, there is a huge lack of child and adolescent (CA) psychiatry services in the island nation. Data suggests that there is only around one child and adolescent psychiatrist for every 330,000 inhabitants. Specialist inpatient clinics are especially lacking, with a single inpatient CA unit in the whole country

This blog provides an overview of child and adolescent psychiatry in Sri Lanka, explaining why specialist support is so important. It also introduces The Wave’s world-leading recovery programs for young people and what we have to offer.

What Mental Health Problems Do Young People in Sri Lanka Experience?

Many children and adolescents in Sri Lanka experience mental health problems or live with mental health disorders. These include behavioural and emotional problems, eating disorders, and the impact of trauma. 

Studies have found that:

  • 13.8% of 7-11 year olds in selected schools had emotional or behavioural problems 
  • 18.9% of adolescents aged 13-18 had emotional or behavioural difficulties, with 12.6% reporting that their difficulties had a significant or severe impact on their lives, including their education and relationships
  • 28% of 14-18 year olds screened positive for severe anxiety and 36% for depression

Many young people in Sri Lanka have also experienced trauma, including exposure to war or natural disasters. Traumatic experiences, if untreated, can have a big impact on a young person’s development, their self-esteem, and the way they perceive the world.

It can also lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and make the development of eating disorders and personality disorders more likely. Bullying is also common in Sri Lankan schools and may be experienced as a form of trauma or have similar consequences.

For young people with mental health problems, accessing specialist treatment is vital for their well-being and their emotional, social, and cognitive development.

Treating mental health disorders and adverse childhood experiences prevents problems continuing into adulthood and supports the healthy development of important skills, including emotional regulation, memory, learning, and interpersonal relationships.

Effective child and adolescent mental health care lays the foundation for the mental and physical well-being of young people, now and in the future.

Why Are Specialist Child and Adolescent Services so Important?

Children and adolescents have unique developmental needs. They experience mental health disorders and respond to treatments differently from adults, require different treatment environments, and have changing relationships with healthcare professionals.

Treatment programs and settings need to reflect these differences so that young people can heal, recover, and develop skills for the future.

Research shows that treating adolescents in specialist settings improves their quality of care, particularly for older adolescents. Those who are treated in adult inpatient programs are less likely to feel secure, treated with respect, and have trust in their healthcare providers. They may also feel bored, lonely, angry, frightened, and out of place.

Specialist services can also help reduce stigma around mental health care and break down barriers to support. Young people and their families may be more likely to seek help if services offer an open, youth-friendly environment that reflects their social and cultural needs, rather than a standard adult treatment setting.

What Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Services Can Young People Access in Sri Lanka?

While Sri Lanka has a mental health policy that aims to provide community-based services to people across the country, it doesn’t have a specific policy for child and adolescent mental health.

Awareness of – and support for – young people’s mental health problems is growing, but there is still a huge shortage of services that meet the needs of children and adolescents.

With only 0.03 CA psychiatrists per 100,000 people, most young people cannot access specialist CA mental health support. Most children and adolescents are instead treated by adult psychiatrists, who lack the experience and knowledge required to provide young people with the most effective treatment programs.

Moreover, the small number of services that do exist are predominately outpatient and may not be able to offer safe and effective care for young people at the highest risk.

As of 2020, Sri Lanka had only two inpatient centres for children under 12, both in Colombo (the largest city in the country). The only centre for adolescent psychiatric support was founded in 2015 within the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH).

The centre accommodated at most 12 young people and, while providing a CA psychiatrist, nurses, and support staff, was without a social worker or psychologist. This means that most adolescents are treated in adult clinics that cannot meet their needs. 

Addressing Stigma About Young People’s Mental Health in Sri Lanka

Despite big steps forward in recent years, there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health in Sri Lanka. This can prevent young people from speaking to others about their experiences or stop parents from seeking support.

However, actions and social changes can help overcome stigma. In the past decades, greater educational and employment opportunities have increased awareness about mental health and empowered young people across Sri Lanka.

The media and NGOs have helped to dispel some of the myths about mental health while bringing young people’s mental well-being into the public discourse. 

At The Wave, challenging misconceptions, stigma, and internalised stigma surrounding mental health is one of our priorities. By working with young people, families, schools, and other institutions, we encourage respect, understanding, and non-judgment of mental health issues, through open conversations, education, conferences, and other tools.

What Does The Wave Clinic Offer for Families from Sri Lanka?

The Wave Clinic offers specialised mental health treatment for children adolescents, and young adults from our centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

We provide inpatient residential programs, outpatient services, and follow-up care to young people from around the world. Our whole-person approach sets the global standard for youth mental health support, combining exceptional clinical care with education, social responsibility, and inspiring experiences as young people lay the foundations for a fulfilling future.

Our team is directed by and constituted of qualified specialists in child and adolescent healthcare with unequalled experience and expertise.

It includes CA psychiatrists, psychologists, trauma therapists, nurses, recovery specialists, nutritionists, doctors, yoga therapists, LBTQIA specialists, family therapists, and many more dedicated staff. Each team member is an expert in their field of practice and licensed in their home country or country of practice.

Our accommodation houses cater to young people who require different levels of care, from 24-hour medical support to supported, collective living with other young people. We offer opportunities for teamwork, shared adventures, and the formation of lifelong friendships as young people become part of our community.

For families based in Sri Lanka, we also offer outpatient services, including intensive outpatient treatments, appointments, therapy sessions (including family therapy), and prescriptions.

We can arrange transport for families to travel from Sri Lanka to our centre – or we can make the journey there to provide adolescent mental health interventions. When a young person finishes a treatment program, they can visit our centre for follow-up care, while we connect them with professionals close to home.

At The Wave, we firmly believe that every young person deserves exceptional mental health support, regardless of their background or presenting issues. We’re here to make that possible, working with families in Sri Lanka and around the world.

If you’d like to find out more about our programs, get in touch today.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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