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Kalpana Sriram, OAM: King’s Birthday Honours 2023

Kalpana Sriram of Sydney has been recognised with OAM for her service to community mental health

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Kalpana Sriram’s advocacy for mental health care in culturally and linguistically diverse communities has been a defining factor in a 50-year career.

Today, she received an OAM in the King’s Birthday honours for her work in community mental health.

Working at the intersection of cultural diversity and mental health practice, the Sydney-based social worker’s extensive experience and expertise have been instrumental in enhancing services.

Chennai’s Stella Maris College was where it all began when Sriram took to social work as an after-hours activity.

“Eventually, the nuns started looking out for me because I was an extra pair of hands,” she laughs. “They thought I had a bent for community service and encouraged me to enroll in a Masters in Psychiatric Social Work. I like to believe that was the first recognition for my social work skills.”

Sriram’s career took off in India right after university, her first role being to investigate the underlying causes of frequent suicides occurring on industrial campuses located in and around Chennai.

Eventually, she worked as the national director for inter-country child welfare projects. “The aim of the project was to rehabilitate children in Australia who couldn’t be rehabilitated in India with dignity. From 1978 to 1984, I sent over 38 homeless children from India to Australia for a better future.”

That was her first brush with Australia. Thanks to her work, she got multiple opportunities to visit, and in 1987 she decided to call Australia home.

With her training in social work specialising in medical and social psychiatry, she joined Liverpool Hospital, with a role in the psychiatry ward.

“That first job helped me come out of my precious abode syndrome,” she reminisces. “I was fortunate to find wonderful colleagues who helped me embrace the local culture.”

It was rough leaving a well-established life behind, she recounts and adds, laughing, “My boss at the hospital taught me how to wear stockings. I was a Chennai girl, how was I supposed to know how to wear stockings? You tell me!”

During this time, she also made important observations from a cultural point of view that helped her grow immensely. There were subtle and not-so-subtle differences in behaviour, such as making eye contact and smiling, which could have a huge impact on the mental health intervention. “I began to see how people from another culture could be easily misunderstood at work places like mine.”

It was Shriram’s ‘eureka’ moment. Well-versed in Hindi and Tamil, she began to take a special interest in patients from the subcontinent. “I had a keen interest in developing the cultural side of the service.”

When the Transcultural Mental Health Centre (TMHC) in NSW was being set up, she was approached to join as a clinician. TMHC is an assessment service for providing culturally appropriate mental health care to those who face language barriers, cultural differences, and prejudice. The implications for mental health providers are huge.

We know from our own culture that treatment-seeking patterns are often different, but Kalpana Sriram elaborates that there could even be differences in the manner in which cultures view health and illness.

“Sri Lankan communities for example, do not believe in the very concept of mental health. They don’t use the term mental illness but will talk about the symptoms. Such being the case, my work became double-sided – directly working with Sri Lankan refugees on the one side, and on the other, educating my team on what to look for in other cultures’ psychiatric patients.”

Apart from life changing observations, there are certain precious moments that bring her joy. Recently, she met one of the children she had rehabilitated to Australia way back in 1978. “He was 2 months old when he came to Australia. He was named Karthik by one of the paediatricians who had found him as a baby. He is in his 40s now, and he came to meet me with his adoptive parents, wife, and children. It’s moments like these that fuel my passion to keep going.

Today, Kalpana’s focus is on transcultural mental health care as a senior counsellor, but that’s not all. Within the Indian community, she is known for her dedication to our ancient arts as founder of the Madhuram Academy of Performing Arts.

“It is my way of practicing social work at home,” she quips.

Since 2013, Madhuram has brought 34 young Indian classical dancers to perform in Sydney.

Kalpana Sriram laughs as she remarks, “Sometimes I feel planning Madhuram concerts is tougher than doing social work.”

Read More: Sunita Gloster, AM: King’s Birthday Honours 2023

Torsha Sen
Torsha Sen
A seasoned journalist who observes passage of time and uses tenses that contain simple past, continuous present, and a future perfect to weave stories.

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