Cover story

Psychology in Sri Lanka Moves Forward

Sri Lankan psychologists brought together psychologists, students, university officials, members of the community, and a broad range of social scientists for a day of discussion centered on the theme Towards Understanding Psychology: A Multi-Perspective Exploration of Psychology in the Sri Lankan Context.

By Merry Bullock, PhD

The University of Peradeniya sits near Kandy, Sri Lanka, a mountain city ringed by high hills, seat of a well-known Buddhist temple, the “Temple of the Tooth”. This November, the university was the setting for a conference organized by Sri Lankan psychologists that brought together psychologists, students, university officials, members of the community (including several Buddhist clergy), and a broad range of social scientists for a day of discussion centered on the theme Towards Understanding Psychology: A Multi-Perspective Exploration of Psychology in the Sri Lankan Context. The one-day meeting, opened by the University Vice Chancellor and attended by about 200 Sri Lankans and several international speakers and guests, explored different approaches and views of psychology, the challenges and opportunities for expanding the discipline of psychology in the national system of higher education and the urgent demand for trained psychologists in settings such as mental health facilities, humanitarian agencies, the military, and the corporate sector.

The following day, psychologists who had attended the conference met in a hilltop hotel to discuss the needs of the discipline in the country and agreed to form a psychology association, the first in the country. The new interim organization will work over the next months to draft a constitution, draw up membership criteria, and develop a set of goals and aims. Its first interim President Piyanjali De Soyza, is joined by an Executive Committee whose members include Udeni Appuhamilage, Marsha Cassiere-Daniel, Shamala Kumar and Suveendran Thirupathy. 

Psychology in Sri Lanka
Although psychology in Sri Lanka is a popular topic both in the university and in the media, it is yet not recognized as an independent discipline in the national university system. Thus, there are no psychology departments in the national university system and postgraduate education in psychology is limited to a Masters’ of Philosophy program in clinical psychology.  This program, which enrolled its first cohort of six students less than six months ago, is taught by foreign staff, who fly in for brief lecture stints.  

Psychology is offered as a subject or program at a number of universities. For example, it is taught as a program within the Department of Philosophy at some universities, and as a subject within departments of Philosophy, Sociology or Education at other universities. Pragmatically, this means that, by and large, students cannot receive a specialized degree in psychology (undergraduate or graduate) unless they study outside the country, and psychology faculty members do not have a substantive academic home. This, added to a general lack of academic resources (books, textbooks, internet resources, laboratories, IT facilities) means that there is much room for psychology to develop.

At the same time that there is little infrastructure for psychology as a discipline, there is an acute awareness by university officials that such an infrastructure and program are needed. Professor Abeygunawardena, Vice Chancellor at Peradeniya University, stated that he is committed to growing psychology as a discipline and independent department. He noted that such a development is important to the country’s national interest, as psychology and psychologists are needed to address many of the country’s current challenges. Similarly, Professor Kshanika Himburegama, Vice Chancellor at Colombo University, in the country’s capital city underscored the importance of developing psychology as a specialty.

Psychologists in Sri Lanka have important roles to play in helping the country face many acute challenges. Sri Lanka has been wracked by civil war for more than 25 years, and there is a strong need for psychologists – as researchers, practitioners, and policy makers – to assist in addressing the sequelae of war, both for combatants and for civilians who have been caught up in the conflict.  Among the war’s victims are children who have been forcibly conscripted to serve as combatants, families who have suffered multiple displacements, and communities living under chronic extreme stress and fear.  Moreover, Sri Lanka was hard hit by the 2004 Asian tsunami, which caused a loss of some 39,000 lives; many thousand more lost their homes or livelihoods.

The conference in Sri Lanka was supported by APA, the British Psychological Society, and other organizations in the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka. APA supported this conference as part of its commitment to medium and long term capacity building efforts after the 2004 tsunami. Funds were used to support national psychology associations in the affected countries to sponsor workshops and training of psychologists in psychosocial responses to disaster and to support the development of organized psychology.

APA’s Senior Director of International Affairs, Merry Bullock, PhD and incoming CIRP Chair Jeanne Marecek, PhD were among the participants in the conference. Bullock spoke in the opening ceremony, with words of welcome on behalf of APA and the international psychology community, and later presented an overview of the advantages, contributions and roles of a psychology association in fostering the development of the discipline and in applying psychology to serve society and people’s welfare. Marecek, who has lived part time and worked in Sri Lanka over the last two decades, and is currently studying the high suicide rate among Sri Lankans, spoke on the checkered history of fostering psychology as a science based discipline in Sri Lanka and the crucial importance and value of  developing empirically-based, context-sensitive psychological knowledge as basis for policy initiatives and practice.

For more information on the conference see Ψ