The Psychosocial Impact of PTSD in Sri Lanka
Posted on September 25th, 2016

Prof Daya Somasundaram, Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a stress-related psychiatric disorder that is thought to emerge from complex interactions among traumatic events, multiple genetic factors (Zannas, Provençal & Binder, 2015) personality, past history and social support.   It is a major public health concern in both civilian and military populations, across race, age, gender, and socio-economic status (Soltis et al., 2014). PTSD develops after exposure to trauma such as physical or sexual assault, injury, combat-related trauma, natural or manmade disaster or death (Boccia et al., 2015). In addition Post-traumatic stress disorder can be acquired vicariously from witnessing traumatic events (Patki et al., 2015).

Posttraumatic stress disorder can affect quality of life, causing distress, impairing psychosocial and occupational functioning and overall well-being (Schnurr et al., 2009). PTSD can manifest itself in different clinical forms. The repetition syndrome can appear a long time after the traumatic event, following a paucisymptomatic latency period, which can last several years or even decades (Auxéméry, 2012). It has lifetime prevalence that is close to 10%. (Jorge, 2015).

PTSD and Sri Lankan Experience 

In the past few decades Sri Lankan society experienced man made and natural disasters that generated a large number of victims with PTSD. In the early days PTSD was a new diagnostic entity and some of the clinicians refused to believe that PTSD is emerging in Sri Lanka. Most of the victims were undiagnosed and untreated. In time there developed a collective trauma affecting society in mega proportions. These traumaticevents might have adverse intergenerational consequences.

1971 Uprising and Psychotrauma

The 1971 uprising that was led by the JVP or the People’s Liberation Front made an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Government by launching an island wide attack of the Police stations. The revolt was brutally crushed and over 12,000 youths were killed. (Figures estimated by Fred Halliday). Over 18, 000 were arrested and kept in various prisons and detention centers. The suspects were often tortured and some were kept in terrible conditions under the Jaffna Hammond Hill prison. A large number of suspects as well as civilians underwent traumatic conditions as a result of the 71 Insurrection. A considerable number of the ex rebels still experience intrusions, distrust, avoidance and emotional numbing even after 38 years of the 71 insurrection (Jayatunge, 2011).

1983 Communal Riots

In July 1983, anti Tamil riots broke out following   the ambush and killing of 13 Sri Lankan Army soldiers. Soon after this incident, the mob attacked the Tamil civilians killing and looting their property. The riots in 1983 created a massive collective trauma and many victims suffered posttraumatic stress. After the 1983 riots, a large number of traumatized youth joined various Tamil militant groups and fought against the Government Forces. Tens of thousands fled to Western Countries and to India. Thousands are still living with the posttraumatic memories of the 83 racial riots.

The Insurgency in 1988/89

The JVP launched its 2nd Insurgency during the time 1988/89 which cost the lives of over 60,000 people. The 88/89 terror period marked by killings of civilians as well as destruction of national assets. Unspeakable atrocities were committed against humanity during this terror period and the nation went through its darkest phase.  The Insurgency in 1988/89 created a bulky numbers of PTSD in the country. Some psychological studies indicate that a vast amount of victims as well as perpetrators of the 88/89 insurgency suffer from malignant PTSD.

Tsunami Disaster 2004

2004 December 26th Tsunami disaster was the immense natural disaster faced by Sri Lankans in its recent history. Over 30,000 people lost their lives and nearly 545,715 people became displaced. Tsunami 2004 created a deep psychological impact on the affected population.

PTSD is common after a major disaster (Kun et al., 2009).  As reported by Hollifield and team (2008) a   large minority of adults in one area of Sri Lanka reported significant psychiatric and somatic symptoms and impairment 20-21 months after the tsunami.

At 3 to 4 weeks after the December 2004 tsunami disaster Neuner and colleagues  (2006) assessed symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 264 children who lived in severely affected coastal communities in Manadkadu (northern coast), Kosgoda (western coast), and Galle (southern coast) in Sri Lanka. The prevalence rate of tsunami-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (ignoring the time criterion) ranged between 14% and 39%.

The Armed Conflict in Sri Lanka

Exposure to war zone stressors is common, yet only a minority of soldiers experience clinically meaningful disturbance in psychological function (Telch et al., 2015). Vasterling and colleagues   (2010) pointed out that Combat severity was more strongly associated with symptom increases among active duty soldiers with higher baseline PTSD symptoms.A considerable proportion of the more than 200,000 service members who participated in 30 long armed conflict in Sri Lanka were exposed to traumatic combat related events. Veterans who participated in the Eelam War have been found to be at increased risk for PTSD.

PTSD has been identified as one of the most commonly occurring mental illnesses in combatants (Abeyasinghe et al., 2012). A study done by Hanwella and team (2012) found a prevalence of PTSD in Sri Lanka in the Special Forces of 1.9% and among the regular forces of 2.9%. Fernanado and Jayatunge (2014) found 6.7% PTSD rate among the members of the Sri Lanka Army who were referred to the Psychiatric unit Military Hospital Colombo during 2002 to 2006.

Civilians Affected by the War

Unlike many earlier wars, which consisted mainly of soldiers meeting and dying in battlefields, civilians were also heavily affected by warfare (Kesternich et al, 2014) resulting in greater physical and mental tolls (Searing et al., 2013). Exposure to conflict, war and disaster situations impact on fundamental family and community dynamics resulting in changes at a collective level (Somasundaram, 2007).

Following the 30 year armed conflict in Sri Lanka civilians from the North and South suffered heavy loses. A large numbers experienced war related psycho traumatic reactions. An epidemiological survey done by Somasundaram and colleagues (2002) found 27% PTSD among the civilian population in Nothern Sri Lanka.  Southern part of Sri Lanka was mainly affected by the LTTE suicide bombings aiming civilian targets. These attacks created mass fear and uncertainty affecting the psychological health and well-being of the civilians.

War related Internal Displacements

Displacement, whether due to conflict, natural disasters or development, not only directly and negatively affects those who are displaced, but also can have far-reaching effects on the culture and society as a whole ( Jayathilaka & Amirthalingam, 2015).  The armed conflict in Sri Lanka uprooted a large number of families. An estimated 200,000 people fled overseas, while the large majority remained internally displaced on the island (Profiles on Internal Displacement.: Sri Lanka, 2005). According to Hussain and team (2011) among residents of Jaffna District in Sri Lanka, prevalence of symptoms of war-related mental health conditions was substantial and significantly associated with displacement status and underlying trauma exposure.

Children Affected by the Armed Conflict

Children worldwide have recently been exposed, more than ever, to the escalating brutality of war, political violence, ethnic strife, and large-scale terrorism (Klingman, 2007). War-related loss during middle childhood and adolescence presents significant risk for adverse mental health and dysfunction in young adulthood in addition to exposure to other war-related traumatic events (Morina, von Lersner & Prigerson 2011). Children and adolescents exposed to traumatic experience in a disaster can suffer from high levels of post-traumatic stress (Yule et al., 2000).

Over the past three decades a large number of Sri Lankan children exposed to cumulative traumatic events associated with war. War related violence, displacement negatively contributed to children’s psychological health.

Militant use of children in Sri Lanka became an acute problem with the Eelam War. The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) have long used the practice of child soldiers against the well-equipped and financially robust Sri Lankan Army (Cohn &Goodwin-Gill, 1994). A significant number of child solders got killed in the war. Those who survived suffer deep physical and psychological traumas. These traumas affect their social and cognitive development.   Despite re-education, rehabilitation and social integration processes, a large number of Sri Lankan child solders continue to suffer from the adverse effects of war.

War Widows

The women who were left widows as a result of the Sri Lankan conflict are facing radically altered circumstances. There are estimated tens of thousands of War widows in Sri Lanka. With the death of their husbands; these women have become a psychologically and socially vulnerable group. Most of the women who underwent severe emotional pain still have not completely recovered. Many have become the victims of pathological grief. They are unable to work through their grief despite the passage of time. With the widowhood, they experience identity change, role adjustment and change in social status.

Widowhood is a stressful event for women, often coinciding with health, financial, and relationship losses (Miller   Smerglia &, Bouchet, 2004). War-related widowhood combined with lone motherhood constitutes a significant factor for elevated psychopathology (Morina & Emmelkamp 2012). In 2005, 86 Sri Lankan war widows were clinically interviewed based on Beck’s depression scale and depression was diagnosed in 23. Ten war widows said that they had contemplated suicide after they lost their husbands (Jayatunge, 2014).

Culture and PTSD

The relationship between trauma and culture is an important one because traumatic experiences are part of the life cycle, universal in manifestation and occurrence, and typically demand a response from culture in terms of healing, treatment, interventions, counseling, and medical care (Wilson, 2007). There are cultural differences in reaction to trauma.  Cultures influence the shape of PTSD over time (Jones et al., 2013).

The culture and history of Sri Lanka reveal that PTSD types of illnesses were common in the ancient days, and the recognition of this malady was not unique to the West.  Ancient and modern narratives tell of the posttraumatic symptomatology of the trauma victims (Jayatunge, 2012). Sri Lankan culture is enriched by the values of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Strong cultural ideals work as bufferes against psychotrauma. De Zoysa and Wickrama (2011) reported that unique religious and cultural coping strategies helped a group of Sri Lankan wounded veterans to improve their perceived mental health.

PTSD and Post War Sri Lanka

Post-war societies are marked by the effects of massive, large group traumatization (Delić et al., 2014). Direct experience of violence and poverty increase the risk of PTSD (Muldoon & Downes,    2007).

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) at least 10% of individuals who experience traumatic events will suffer from mental health conditions (Siriwardhana et al., 2013). The combination of the tsunami and civil war has taken a tremendous toll on the economic status of the country and has damaged the psychological health of the citizens (Sritharan & Sritharan, 2014).  In Sri Lanka PTSD prevalence estimates varying from 2.8 to 40% (Hollifield et al, 2008; Siriwardhana et al., 2013).

Exposure to prolonged violence, natural disasters and displacements have created robust post traumatic reactions among the victims. These Post-traumatic responses impact the psycho social well-being of the population. As reported by Knipe and colleagues (2014) the epidemiology of suicide in Sri Lanka has changed noticeably in the last 30 years and it had one of the highest rates in the world. The survivors experience numerous mental health problems. Therefore, major psychosocial interventions are required to restore the damages caused by the war and natural disasters.

Promotion of human rights and justice are the key way to reinstate the social equilibrium. The victims of trauma need appropriate treatment psychosocial support and culturally sensitive rehabilitation. Apart from these measures infrastructure reconstruction and reconciliation should be focused in the post war Sri Lankan society.

Treatment Measures

In the modern day Sri Lanka, the psychological victims of   trauma are treated with Allopathic medicine, traditional Ayurvedic medicine, Psychotherapy and Spiritual therapies. Psychiatrists treat the war trauma victims with depression and PTSD and other anxiety related disorders with SSRIs (Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) and sometimes combine antipsychotics when there are signs of severe disturbed behavior with psychotic manifestations. Ayurvedic specialists use various types of traditional remedies to ease the anxiety. Psychologists and Psychotherapists often use Person-centered (Rogerian) therapy, EMDR, and Cognitive behavior therapy.  According to Jayatunge (2014) EMDR has been successfully used to treat Tsunami victims and combatants who were affected by war trauma.

Psychosocial Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation is an ecological approach that aims at the long term recovery and maximum self-sufficiency. In 1996 the World Health Organization came out with a consensus statement on psychosocial rehabilitation. The WHO defined psychosocial rehabilitation as a process that facilitates for individuals who are impaired, disabled or handicapped by a mental disorder to reach an optimal level of independent functioning in the community. Many physically and psychologically traumatized individuals need psychosocial rehabilitation to recover. Warren (2002) of the view that addressing the broader emotional, social and economic needs of survivors is a critical aspect of the rehabilitation process. Support survivors in becoming reintegrated into all aspects of community life, including education, employment, recreation, and social and political activities.


Sri Lanka is challenged by the adverse effects of two youth uprisings, 30 year internal armed conflict and a great natural disaster in 2004. During the past four decades a large number of people were exposed to traumatic events. A generation of people suffered from psychological aftermath of man made and natural disasters. Significant number of individuals are living with emotional scars.

Various trauma related ailments such as PTSD, Adjustment Disorders, Depression, Somatization etc have found among the victims. Some of the psycho trauma reactions are still undiagnosed and victims do not receive adequate treatments. However these psycho traumas affect the psycho social well-being of the victims, their families and to the society. Effective treatment and psycho social rehabilitation measures should be implemented to help the individuals affected by psycho trauma and prevent future violence. These treatment measures should reflect the concepts of recovery with the ability to live a full and meaningful life.


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2 Responses to “The Psychosocial Impact of PTSD in Sri Lanka”

  1. plumblossom Says:

    The LTTE massacred over 35,000 Sri Lankan Armed Forces members, Police Force members and Civil Defense Force members over 6000-7000 overwhelmingly Sinhala but also Muslim civilians, 1,253 Indian Peacekeeping Forces (IPKF) members, over 2,000 Tamil Armed Group members who supported the Government of Sri Lanka and who were against the LTTE, around 3,000 Tamil civilians and all this add upto 47,000. Around 35,000 LTTE terrorists are estimated to have perished too. In all around 84,000 in total have perished on both sides in the war.

    As you can see it is the brutal LTTE terrorists who massacred over 47,000 mainly Sri Lankan Armed Forces members, Police Force members, Civil Defense Force members in over 26 years of war. Over 23,000 Sri Lankan Armed Forces members are today both temporarily and permanently disabled due to the war. Over 13,000 Sri Lankan Armed Forces members are permanently disabled due to the war. Over 156,000 Sri Lankan Armed Forces members have been injured due to the war. Over 6,000-7,000 overwhelmingly Sinhala but also Muslim civilians have been massacred by the LTTE terrorists in the war of over 26 years.

    The LTTE terrorist group also ethnically cleansed the entire Sinhala and Muslim population of the Northern Province, of over 65,000 Sinhala people and over 75,000 Muslim people of the Northern Province in the 1980s and the 1990s. The LTTE also ethnically cleansed the entire Sinhala population of the Batticaloa District in the East of over 25,000 Sinhala people.

    Today, the Sinhala people and their descendants of over 135,000 are yet to be resettled in the North and in the Batticaloa District and Muslims of over 115,000 are yet to be resettled in the North. Uptil 2012, of the above number, around 32,000 Sinhala people and around 32,000 Muslims has been resettled in the North.

    The LTTE terrorist group recruited over 20,000 child soldiers, all Tamil youth, as attested by UNICEF itself which stated in 2007 that perhaps the LTTE has recruited over 20,000 young persons under the age of 18 years into its cadre between 1983-2007 inclusive.

    The LTTE was notorious for its horrific terror tactics such as large scale bomb attacks and the use of suicide bombers in carrying out hundreds of attacks against mainly Sinhala civilians and the country’s leadership, horrific attacks against Sinhala civilians using IED devices, claymore mines and bombs, the massacre of Sinhala villagers in their villages in the North Central, Eastern, Northern and North Western Provinces, the coerced recruitment or abduction of Tamil youth and children for recruitment as child soldiers, forced money collection from Tamils with threats to life in case of non-compliance, attacks on Sri Lanka’s economic infrastructure such as the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL), Sri Lanka’s the then only international airport, oil storage facilities, hotels, planes, buses, trains etc. ethnic cleansing of Sinhalese and Muslims from the North and East of Sri Lanka, the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the systematic assassination of over 120 noteworthy Sri Lankan politicians, civil servants, senior military and police officers, prelates, activists, academics, journalists and other professionals who were assassinated by the LTTE who were but a few of the hundreds of assassinations carried out by the LTTE, including the former Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.

  2. plumblossom Says:

    I would like to tell this doctor, most of the war widows are in the South, not the North. Besides, please also talk about the ethnic cleansing of the whole population of Sinhala people and Muslim people of the North and the ethnic cleansing of the entire population of Sinhala people of the Batticaloa District by the LTTE. What about the massacre of thousands of Sinhala villagers, and to a lesser extent Muslim villagers in what were known as threatened villagers in the North Central, North, East and North Western provinces by the LTTE? Are they less important somehow? What about the large scale bomb attacks carried out by the LTTE all over the island? It is good that coerced recruitment of youth by the LTTE is talked about but also talk about the above issues raised too.

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