MELODY OF PAIN: Sharing Life Experience against Stigma and Discrimination

MELODY OF PAIN: Sharing Life Experience against Stigma and Discrimination

Sri Lanka
Organization type: 
for profit
$1,000 - $10,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

A group of consumers dreamt of a drama to promote mental health. It was about to be dropped when I took the challenge. The majority hadn't performed, sung or danced. But at the end they were able to translate their life experience into an interactive theatre: Theatre of the Oppressed.  

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

“I preferred to be isolated and couldn’t sleep for days. Slowly, I got infected with Nephritis. Then I lied to the doctor. I made her confused. At the end, I couldn't breathe and my heart was beating faster than ever.. Yet, I was feeling happy and relaxed. I was counting my days. Neither I nor my parents knew the cause when I was admitted to the national hospital. Unless the efforts of those doctors, I wouldn’t be here to share my story." I am a survivor of suicide. But, until the time I took the challenge of leading BasicNeeds Sri Lanka [2001], I never knew that my strange behavior [1978] was due to Depression. My family was helpless. This is just one story to demonstrate the magnitude of the issue of unawareness and negligence about mental illnesses in my country, which was once the world leader in suicides.
About You
Laymen's Den PLC
Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name


Section 2: About Your Organization
Organization Name

Laymen's Den PLC

Organization Phone

+94 11 2516709

Organization Address

252, Gangarama Road, Werahera, Boralesgamuwa 10290, Sri Lanka

Organization Country
Your idea
Country your work focuses on
What makes your idea unique?

Many talk about empowerment and the need for respecting the rights of persons with mental illnesses. But when it comes to real partnerships not many believe that mentally ill people are sound enough to be creative and professional in their work. That is the challenge ahead of us as the persons experiencing mental illnesses. Who will take the risk of providing us the opportunity to demonstrate our capacity and talents? I believe in participatory consultation. Many development practitioners used participatory techniques to get people express their ideas. During initial consultative workshops at BasicNeeds we used the same. But, the members of Nidahas Chinthana Sansadaya as consumer advocates in true sense having crossed that journey, I had the privilege of adding my ideas as well to enrich their idea of drama. I described about the forum theatre concept to them and how their life stories and problems can be discussed and used in the development of an interactive theatre. The challenge was to develop it, during the 10-day training workshop to make it ready for performing at the end of the workshop. This type of consumer-led theatre production has not tried anywhere in the world. It was a challenge for me: 1) majority of the participants had no experience in drama, music or dancing 2) it should be interesting and less serious so that their participation will concentrate easily; 3) how will it be when they go back to their past demonstrating their illnesses? With all that doubts finally we made it!

Do you have a patent for this idea?

What impact have you had?

When the drama is staged once and repeated allowing the spectators to change wrong actions, they realized the depth of the issue and came forward to perform with their ideas changing the wrong actions observed in the drama towards a happy ending. Today they are veteran performers and facilitators in interactive theatre – The Theatre of the Oppressed. Majority of them hasn’t performed, sung or danced in their life. Since the workshop they have performed for health practitioners, police, policy makers, as well as in their communities and were managed to create a dialogue by getting them perform too.

“I was not so confident whether the audience being high rank officers, will perform. But their response was amazing, so was their performance of the consumers. 'Change makers' came one after another. I was happy and I was sure that they would be invited to perform by many organisations including the ministry. Everything cannot be changed in a day, but someone should start somewhere.” – Dr. Neil Fernando, Consultant Psychiatrist/Former Director of Mental Health, Sri Lanka.

Six stabilized consumers wrote their life stories to publish and five more intended to develop dramas based on their life stories. Health professionals and school teachers are requesting the theatre group to come and perform as an education tool. One TV company shared the information repeatedly in their counseling programs. The team is now managing without my involvement, with confidence and experience they gained through more than 20 performances to date.


1) Presently we have 3 life stories developed as interactive theatre on the themes: understanding schizophrenia, alcoholism, violence against women leading to depression/suicide. Ten more theatres covering burning issues in community well-being based on true stories of consumers planned.
2) An advance training program for the theatre groups presently performing required to be held soon.
3) Expansion of Nidahas Chinthana Sansadaya to other provinces of the country, mainly in the post conflict areas – North and East through the Theatre of the Oppressed will open an opportunity for stabilized consumers to join in.
4) A research on further understanding of mental illnesses by professionals through consumer partnership actions.
5) A book on mental health based on life stories and analytical comments by a well-known psychiatrist in three languages (English, Sinhala and Tamil)
6)Take the Theatre of the Oppressed to change attitudes and practices of policy makers and implementers


1) Reduction of stigma contributing to increase in people with mental illnesses voluntarily approaching service providers for treatment and therapy
2) The present attitude of the society changed towards the benefit of the consumers, respecting their rights
3) Integration of persons with mental illnesses into development process facilitated
4) Prevention mechanisms to protect younger generation from mental illnesses developed at the community level
5) Government systems broaden and decentralised with the demand for their mental health services

What will it take for your project to be successful over the next three years? Please address each year separately, if possible.

Year 1: With the need to expanding the membership to other areas, fund raising to be given a priority, while continuing the performances with NGO partnerships in southern province.
Year 2: More collaborative actions and partnership at policy level will strengthen the organisational efforts in mental health promotion, e.g. 500-village community mental health progeam planned by the government; For that capacity building of the forum membership required in Year 1 & 2.
Year 3: Establishing partnerships with mental health professionals and media representing the voice of people with mental illnesses, to further research on to social and medical factors affecting mental well being of people, for facilitation of prevention at community level.

What would prevent your project from being a success?

Lack of finances to implement the broader project. Nidahas Chinthana Sansadaya has not been included in the government tax relief system and therefore, Laymen's Den PLC which supported them so far has been taxed for the funds released to Nidahas Chinthana Sansadaya as well. Other than that all stakeholders in the sector recognise the work of Nidahas Chinthana Sansadaya and Laymen's Den PLC.

How many people will your project serve annually?


What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your project seek to have an impact on public policy?


What stage is your project in?

Operating for less than a year

In what country?
Is your initiative connected to an established organization?


If yes, provide organization name.

BasicNeeds Sri Lanka

How long has this organization been operating?

More than 5 years

Does your organization have a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with NGOs?

Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with businesses?

Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with government?

Please tell us more about how these partnerships are critical to the success of your innovation.

Theatre Group members are the members of Nidhas Chinthana Sansadaya, without whom the theatre wouldn’t have happened and their commitment and hard work helped Laymen’s Den to help them develop three stories on the themes: 1) Stigma and Discrimination; 2) Suicides and 3) Alcoholism to educate community; BasicNeeds Sri Lanka (INGO) assisted financially during their performances in the villages, workshops organised by other NGOs and government organisations. The country is in the process of implementing 500-village Community Mental Health Care programme through primary health care system. In a time like this, it is important that the stabilized consumers take the responsibility of encouraging those with mental illnesses to access mental health services. Thus, these partnerships are most important in further networking and improving the outreach of the Theatre of The Oppressed. Laymen’s Den can share their expertise in conducting advance training programmes and even developing theatre groups of consumers in mental health in other areas of the country.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization?

1)Further training for performers of southern theatre group and other areas to involve more consumer advocates to join in sharing their stories. This will help forming a theatre group from each district and further at divisional secretariat division level, sharing their life stories to educate the public, through interactive forum theatre.
2)Establish a network of mental health promoters and consumer advocates who will work on effective promotion, prevention and service delivery mechanisms to assist mentally ill people in remote villages.
3)Organise consultative workshops with communities as a follow-up of the theatre of oppressed, in all the villages they performed. So that village mental health and development plans will be established.
4)Build the management capacity of Nidahas Chinthana Sansadaya to run these operations smoothly in the future.

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

Despite the investment and interest on mental health promotion in Sri Lanka, still people are reluctant to come forward due to myths and stigma, that were coined with mental illnesses. Though there is possibility of preventing the occurance of such illnesses, and treat them people hide their patients, until such time of uncontrolable illness. Educating the community through life stories found to be effective, but keeping the concentration to a story found to be difficult. Thus, the Forum Theatre concept was adapted here to let people practically involved in understanding the issues as an interactive exercise by dramatising the story.

Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.

I am a survivor of suicide. But, until the time I took the challenge of leading BasicNeeds Sri Lanka [2001] as the Country Programme Manager, I never knew that my strange behaviour in 1978 was due to a mental illness which is called Depression. Looking at the BasicNeeds Mental Health and Development Model, my Sri Lankan colleagues and partners had doubts whether people would come forward to say that they are having a mental illness, and consulting them in a big community gathering was a challenge. I had no choice, but to make it work in Sri Lanka. Therefore, I decided to share my story as a consumer in mental health [2002], which was a difficult decision. I was the first Sri Lankan professional who revealed my status publicly.

I am happy today for taking that decision having more than 150 stabilized mentally ill people assisted through BasicNeeds - Sri Lanka Government partnership programme (funded by DfID UK from 2003 - 2007, with about 30 are sharing their stories at the consultative awareness programmes organised by BasicNeeds and their partners in Sri Lanka. This movement which we founded with 12 consumers in 2005, is now a registered NGO in Sri Lanka -Nidahas Chinthana Sansadaya, i.e. A Forum of Freedom to Think. From this year, they have also offered honourary memberships for those active village volunteers who helped them control their illnesses. When I left BasicNeeds, due to my health status in December 2006 I have donated SLRs.100,000/- (app. US$1000/-) to BasicNeeds Sri Lanka, requesting them to use that in the development of this consumer action forum. They were so nice to transfer that to the Forum account, when it got registered in November 2008.

In January 2008, with another four professionals who admire my work and the vision organised to form a company - a consultancy firm called Laymen's Den PLC. The idea was to earn as a team for our living while using some savings for the wellbeing of others, i.e. innovative development work. It was not just money, but also sharing with and/or transfering our talents and expertise to the young members of marginalised communities, through programmes and internships where possible. Ours is a small company, amidst the giants of highly profit oriented product/services based companies. My commitment to mental health promotion has not stopped there. This theatre group of consumers made me proud, for neing the trainer, director and producer of the Theatre of Oppressed. Recognizing my commitment to fellow mentally ill people, the members of Nidahas Chinthana Sansadaya officially announced me as the founder and national organiser ot this young organisation.

My career life since October 1987:
[1987-1991] Upali Newspapers PLC, Sri Lanka - Deputy Editor, Vidusara Science Weekly
[1991-2000] Practical Action South Asia (formerly referred to as ITDG) - Communications Adviser [1991- 1994]; Projct Manager/ Communications and small Enterprise Development [1994-2000]
[2000-2001] Independent consultant/ Communications and small enterprise development
[2001-2007] BasicNeeds Sri Lanka - Country Programme Manager
[2007-2008] Independent consultant/ Project Management, communications and small enterprise development
[2008 todate] Laymen's Den PLC - Managing Director
and also being honoured as the Founder of Nidahas Chinthana Sansadaya

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

Through another organization or company

If through another, please provide the name of the organization or company

Young Asia Television Programme on Ashoka Fellows