Athula Sumathipala - biography

Athula Sumathipala

Athula Sumathipala is currently the Professor of Psychiatry at the Research Institute for Primary Care and Health Sciences, Faculty of Health, Keele University Staffordshire ST5 5BG, UK, and a honorary consultant at the South Staffordshire and Shropshire Healthcare Foundation Trust, UK.  He is also the honorary Director of the Institute for Research and Development (IRD) in Sri Lanka, which he proposed and co-founded in 2000. 

His research interests are centred on inter-connected disciplines. These are the epidemiology of chronic disease and multi-morbidity, especially physical and mental illness combinations; evaluation and implementation of complex interventions.  His interests include twin methods in the study of illness aetiology because it is a powerful tool in research using twin methods in the study of illness aetiology.  His interests in ethics related to research is as a cross cutting theme. It has evolved also into disaster mental health and ethics. Most of his research up to now has been based in Sri Lanka

His work is grounded through real life experience when he was working in in Sri Lanka He has conducted two clinical trials of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) for the treatment of Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS) in Sri Lanka. These were identified in the Lancet Series on Global Mental Health (2007) as among a handful of such complex intervention trials of mental disorders from low and middle income countries.

His work particularly on MUS has had an influence policy and practice in the field. MUS are an important public health issue following disasters. Therefore after the tsunami, the WHO sponsored training of a critical mass of doctors (400).  A manual and a poster were developed (www.ird.lk). The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC - headed by the WHO) guidelines on mental health and psycho social support in emergency settings, has incorporated this work and have recommended it as an important front line post-disaster intervention. It is also incorporated in WHO mhGAP Intervention Guide for mental, neurological and substance use disorders in non-specialized health settings. After the earthquake in Pakistan and Sichuan province in China, I trained 40 psychiatrists using these resources.

He also proposed and co- founded the Sri Lankan Twin Registry (1997), which is a unique resource; one of the few large scale functioning population-based registries for twin and genetic research in a low- and middle-income country (LMIC).  It comprises of a volunteer cohort of 14,120 twins and a population-based cohort of 19,040 twins. Several studies have been conducted using this registry, which have explored the prevalence and heritability of a range of psychiatric disorders including depression, somatisation, PTSD, alcohol abuse.

Current work is extending into the interface between mental and physical health to new horizons, extending collaborations with the wider global twin research community. A follow-up study of the same cohort is now underway, looking at the prevalence and interrelationship of a number of key cardiovascular and metabolic risk markers; diabetes, heart disease, and depression.

He has also built a successful programme of research into ethical aspects of research in Sri Lanka. This work includes training and capacity building to improve research ethics and the governance of research in Sri Lanka and South Asia. This was extended to disaster related research and ethics. He has given leadership to establish the Working Group on Disaster Research and Ethics (WGDRE) in South Asia publishing ethical guidelines for disaster related research. This group has now extended to include colleagues from Australia, Brazil, Israel, Japan, China, US and EU countries. Extension of this work earned him an additional international reputation in bioethics that resulted in the UNECSO validating me as an expert in bioethics.

He has published widely in international quality journals and contributed to book chapters and books. His work has brought him an international reputation. This is reflected through the travelling professorship he was awarded by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP)  in 2007 and Honorary Fellowship awarded by the Sri Lankan College of General Practitioners in 2008.  He has also been an invited speaker at major international conferences including the invitation by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the World Health Organization WHO, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in (Beijing 2006), World Psychiatric Association & WONCA Thematic Conference (Grenada 2008), and at the 11th International congress on behavioural medicine, Washington DC (2010) and key note speech at RANZAP annual conference in New Zealand (2007).

He has served as a member of the WHO Working Group on Somatic Distress and Dissociative Disorders, Revision of ICD-10 (2011) and WHO Guidelines Development Group (GDG) for problems and disorders specifically related to stress (SPE-STRESS) – (2011)

His greatest contribution throughout his academic and research career is the establishment of Institute for Research & Development (IRD) in Sri Lanka (www.ird.lk) and the Sri Lankan Twin Registry. Working with senior colleagues at the IoP/KCL and Sri Lanka, the resource has been extended to establish a state-of-the-art genetic laboratory and a bio-bank.