2nd July 2000

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Psychotherapy counselling: an urgent need

By Tharuka Dissanaike

At first glance it looks more like a quite retreat than a counselling centre. In the spacious garden, small groups of twos and threes sat in deep conversation, surrounded by rustling trees and bird calls. A small group of people gathered at the front porch. These people come from far and wide on Sunday morning for the free counselling sessions offered by a group of volunteers working for Sahana Medura. There appears to be no special distinction in age in the group that gathered to the centre that Sunday, a young woman, a middle-aged couple, a nervous young man, and a Psychotherapy counselling: an urgent needthirty-something mother...

But, Rev. Dr. Fraccid Anthony, Director of Sahana Medura said that there is an increasing number of youth between the ages of 12 and 22 who come seeking help. "They come with parents or on their own for a wide of problems from drug addiction to bad school performance. Most teenage problems can be corrected. But what I find most recurrent in youth problems is that by deviating they seek attention from society."

Sri Lanka's high suicide rate, Fr. Anthony attributes to a lack of family cohesion and love within family members. "By attempting or committing suicide, these young people are sending out a message to society- that they need more love than they are receiving."

Fr. Anthony quotes a case in Tanamalwila where a young mother tried to swallow poison just to get her husband and children to sit up take notice and appreciate her- but when society turned her attempted suicide to ridicule and began teasing her about it. Soon the woman saw little option but to Fr. Fraccid ANthony wiht two volunteers at Sahana Meduratake her life- this time for real.

Although he has never advertised or publicised the centre's work, Fr. Anthony, has never been short of clients since he opened the centre in 1994. In fact the demand has been growing so rapidly that he is considering leaving his senior lecturer position at the University of Peradeniya to devote more time to psychotherapy counselling, which, Fr. Anthony recognises as an important need in the country. Especially in the present state of war and displaced populations, high suicides and juvenile delinquency, middle-east mothers and free trade zone workers the need for counselling to deal of life's stress is vital.

Counselling is different to psychiatric treatment, which is administered to mentally sick patients through trained medical doctors. Counselling is done at a stage where people feel they cannot cope with stress and tension of a given situation, or when people begin to manifest first signs of depression or personality disorder. "Almost 99 percent of people who seek treatment here are cured of their problem. But each client must at least attend four sessions of counselling. We impose no time limits and there is no charge on the clients."

Fr. Anthony juggles the running of Sahana Medura with a full-time University job. Monday to Friday he lectures at the University. But every day at 3pm he begins counselling sessions at the Kandy branch of Sahana Medura. At 9pm he conducts marriage counselling for distressed couples at the same rented house in Kandy town. "Sometimes the therapy sessions go on until 1oclock in the morning."

By Friday afternoon he arrives at Ekala, seeing patients by appointment on Friday evening and Saturday. Sunday is of course open to anyone seeking therapy.

Fr. Anthony conducts his own diploma course in psycho-therapy counselling at Ekala. The course takes in a maximum of 15 students and goes on for three months with classes every Saturday morning. The awarded diploma is recognised by the education authorities. Many of the graduates volunteer at the centre. "Although I am a Catholic priest the centre is open to all- race, religion is immaterial. There are many Buddhist priests who followed the counselling course under me."

After obtaining his doctorate in the USA, Fr. Anthony worked with convicts in a New York state prison. Here he collected enough money to come back to Sri Lanka and fulfil his dream- to establish a psycho therapy counselling centre to help poor people. "Many thought I should stay in the USA, earning a fat salary and living well," said Fr. Anthony. "But I did not become a priest to work for Americans."

The land in Ragama that he was first interested in was soon beyond his reach for the price was too high, and Fr. Anthony settled for the present site in Ekala. "Looking back, I think God made that decision, because this area, with its problems of migrant factory workers, is most in need of a counselling centre like this." Fr. Anthony said that there are at least two suicides a week among factory girls who have come from villages and struggle to survive in the harsh urban world.

The centre is run totally on funding- mostly through Fr. Anthony's University salary.

Often, he said, it's a mystery how funding comes in and things get done. "we are not in debt, we can still afford to give this service free of charge and we even complete building projects without much money in hand. It's all providence."

Looking at the future, Fr. Anthony hopes to increase the centre's activity by keeping Sahana Medura open throughout the week, providing lodging to patients who come from distant places and thereby serving a larger section of the population. To do this he hopes to draw in many more volunteers and students for the diploma. Even if the diploma holders do not serve the centre, their services will be needed elsewhere in the country, Fr. Anthony said.

Sahana Medura can be contacted on phone-235359

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