Nearly three decades ago, a husband and his pregnant wife were fleeing the Sri Lankan riots on a bicycle with their two children, who were one and two years old respectively. The toddler was on the bar of the bike, and the infant was being carried on the mother’s lap. During this already stressful time, they have an untimely accident, causing severe maternal blood loss, leading to decreased placental and fetal blood flow. The resulting anoxic brain injury to the fetus left her with significant intellectual and physical disabilities at birth. Her pediatricians counseled the mother, Vijitha Tharmalingam, that her newborn child, Meera, would not be able to walk or talk.
Meera was born in a small village in which exceptionalities were not common. At the time, she was the first disabled child even in our extended family, so there was no prior education or knowledge behind mental illnesses. Vijitha faced numerous obstacles and difficulties, including sleepless nights and restless days, from waking up in the morning, brushing Meera’s teeth, providing her peri-care, assisting her with donning clothes, to making fancy hairstyles, feeding her, travelling to numerous cities to visit doctors and specialists – and the list is endless even today. Moreover, Vijitha faced additional language barriers in the southern part of Sri Lanka, where Meera was receiving treatment, which has continued to this day in Canada, once she immigrated here in 1992.
In addition to the stress of providing care for Meera, Vijitha had to face multiple intersecting layers of discrimination, due to the stigma associated with mental illness. In fact, her own immediate family members shunned her away. Even today, the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illnesses is still an ongoing challenge. Vijitha wanted to share the knowledge and resources, which she lacked 30 years ago, to form a community of love and kinship, and this is the reason why she co-founded ATI Foundation in 2014, alongside Mr. Selvamanikam Bhrapakaran and Mr. Nimalan Balachandran.