Canadian Tamil community in crisis

  • October 15, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - There’s a mental health emergency in Toronto’s huge Tamil community.

Addictions and alcoholism, depression, family violence, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides haunt the community as people struggle to cope with death and disappearance of their families back home in Sri Lanka.

The extraordinary stress on Toronto’s 150,000 Sri Lankan Tamils dates back to the Christmas 2004 tsunami that wiped out whole villages in the largely Catholic coastal areas. But just as Toronto’s Tamils began to recover from the grief of burying family and friends and seeing the places they grew up obliterated by the sea, the war then intensified along the same coastal strip.

“In a cultural sense, the community has been going through deep grief, particularly over the last nine months or so,” said Fr. Joseph Chandrakanthan, a medical ethicist at the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics and a lecturer at St. Augustine’s Seminary.

An eyewitness to the end stages of the war in Sri Lanka has told The Catholic Register a minimum of 37,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final three months of the war. The Catholic aid worker, who must remain anonymous for fear of being excluded from the refugee camps or even targeted by Sri Lanka’s military, said there are 280,000 Tamils in the guarded camps with limited access to humanitarian aid.

The Sri Lankan government has kept journalists and most non-governmental organizations out of the camps and the entire region. In Toronto that means many Tamils simply don’t know whether their relatives were killed or are now surviving
on two bowls of rice a day in crowded tents under guard while the monsoon rains come.

For Toronto’s Tamils, nearly half of whom entered Canada as refugees, the uncertainty about their own relatives and the images of death and mayhem from back home have been torture.

“It’s been continuous agony,” said Parvathy Kanthasamy, Vasantham Tamil Wellness Centre founding member. “It’s the effect of the tsunami, and now it’s the war. It is this inhuman thing that’s going on in the camps.”

{mosimage}“People are really struggling to mentally come to terms with what has happened over the last few months,” said Jessica Chandrashekar, a spokesperson for the student-led Canadian Humanitarian Appeal for the Relief of Tamils (Canadian HART). “Many people have seen their family members die or become displaced or be injured. Many people have family who are being held in the camps. It is difficult to kind of go about your day-to-day lives and responsibilities having been through all of this and going through all of this.”

The way the war ended, with a unilateral declaration of victory and absolute rejection of negotiation, has also been difficult for Toronto’s Tamils to accept, said Chandrashekar.

“People’s hope in achieving equality or being treated as human within the state of Sri Lanka — I don’t know if that hope has been there for some time,” she said.

Sri Lankan Canadian Community Services , a Mississauga agency that helps both Tamil and Sinhalese Sri Lankans access health and social services, has seen a spike in Tamil mental health referrals since the end of the war, despite a culture that harbours fears about the stigma of mental disease.

“They are in crisis,” said executive director Kanchana Thuraisingham. “They are behind closed doors. They don’t want to identify themselves as being in crisis.”

Psychologist Arunkar Pillai, who speaks Tamil but is not himself Tamil or Sri Lankan, is one of just three Tamil-speaking psychologists licensed in Ontario. He has seen clients almost paralyzed by guilt and depression. Guilt because they’re here safe and well fed while their family is either in the camps or dead, and depressed because they feel powerless to do anything to help.

Pillai worries that some Tamils with only a basic education are becoming prey to palm readers and psychics who use religious symbols and language to manipulate their clients.

A 2006 Tamil mental health community survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the University of Toronto Department of Psychiatry found that 5.5 per cent of Toronto-area Tamils addressed anxiety and frustration by turning to astrologers, while 15 per cent turned to herbal or traditional medicine. Less than one per cent of the 1,600 Tamil households and individuals contacted in the survey had seen a psychologist or psychiatrist in the previous year, and 0.8 per cent had consulted a religious leader for counselling on emotional or stress-related issues.

It’s been difficult for the church to respond to the crisis.

“I am not professionally trained for that,” said Fr. Gabriel Arulnesan, a parish priest of the Tamil parish at St. Joseph’s in Toronto. “But I call them, I talk to them. I’ve visited them to bless their houses. With the help of the Legion of Mary, those kinds of things I am doing. It may not be considered psychological treatment, but in the pastoral sense it will help.”

Arulnesan knows there are members of the community who simply don’t know where to turn.

Getting some kind of professional help in place is essential, said Chandrakanthan.

“For those who can’t have some access to counselling, the qualitative leap from depression to serious mental illness is very quick,” he said.

Chandrakanthan wishes churches across the city were open to meet the pastoral needs of local Tamils. Seeking refuge from their troubles inside a church is an old habit for Tamils.

“They just go and sit in the church. They’re not involved in intensely contemplative prayer, but sacred space gives them a sense of relief and healing,” he said.

For Chandrakanthan, it’s not easy to analyse the problems as if he were an outsider. He has watched helplessly from Toronto as young priests and nuns he helped train as a seminary professor in Jaffna have been kidnapped and killed. Churches have been shelled and entire parishes wiped out.

As the Sri Lankan government declared an end to the war, Chandrakanthan found it difficult to eat and sleep.

“It’s in me as well. It’s collective guilt, is what I’m saying. I found it extremely hard to eat anything in the second week of May,” he said. “How can I be ethically correct and eating and living in this comfort? Your heart and your conscience begins to tear you. We all went through it.”

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