COVID-19 PANDEMIC; IS COMMUNITY GIVING ENOUGH ATTENTION TO MENTAL HEALTH IN UGANDA?
By Patson Baraire Mushaija
An estimated 1 billion people across the world are living with mental health problems and it’s also estimated that about 3 million people die every year from harmful use of alcohol while one person dies every after 40 seconds by suicide all due to mental health-related problems.
While accessing mental health services remain a major challenge and the few people around the world are aware of the services or can access them, the situation has not been helped by the COVID 19 pandemic which has created an unmeasurable effect on every person living.
The many cases of mental illness we encounter in our communities is a result of a lack of understanding of mental health issues or mental illness and the majority of people cannot even distinguish between the two aspects of life.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Mental Health as a state of well-being in which every person individual realizes his or her own state of well-being in which every person realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stress of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
It should therefore be known that the general wellbeing of every person depends on their mental health, just like their physical health, however majority of people have ignored their mental health and do not take it as a priority and as a result, so many silently suffer from mental health problems even when they are not aware.
There are also a lot of myths and negative perceptions associated with mental health in our communities and these negative attitudes have led to discrimination, stigmatization, and total violation of the rights of people with mental health problems.
Such negative perceptions need to be broken as they are widespread and every human being with a brain is vulnerable and can get a mental health problem and its, therefore, a duty of everyone to know about mental health problems, how they manifest and impact our communities and also find out what can be done to minimize or end the effects.
On the other hand, Mental Illness is a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function normally.
According to the United Nations (UN), millions of people worldwide have mental health problems and it’s estimated that that one out of every four people across the world will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime.
It’s also said that suicide cases that are a result of mental illness account for one million deaths across the world and remains the third leading cause of death among the youth.
Persons with mental and psychosocial problems often face stigma and discrimination and also experience high levels of physical and sexual abuse which can occur in a range of settings including Police Stations, prisons, at Church or even homes.
Many mentally ill people are called degrading names both in English and local languages and this escalates their wellbeing because they fail to understand their own plight.
In Uganda, Mental Health statistics are still scarce because, and there is no Organization that has come out to document it based on the intakes of all people affected except those taken to Butabika National Referral Mental Hospital.
However, it’s estimated that mental disorders make up 14% of the global burden of the disease worldwide and 75% of these are from low and middle-income populations.
The Acting Commissioner Health Services at the Ministry of Health in Charge of Mental Health and Control of Substance Abuse Dr Hasfa Luswata confided to this reporter that there cannot be health without mental health and if communities had a fair understanding of mental health there would be early detection and management of mental illness which would result in fewer cases.
Dr Luswata says that COVID 19 has come with immense impact on people’s wellbeing across the world despite the pre-existing conditions which would create depression and anxiety leading to death and admitted that mental health has always been an area of great stigma and therefore sharing information about it in communities will create a shift in attitudes because mental health challenges can affect anyone and the impending post-COVID-19 effect, are likely to manifest it.
The Executive Director of Mental Health Uganda (MHU) Derrick Kizza Mbuga says that mental health stigma remains widespread and entrenched in the communities we live in and so many people have been abused and therefore newly emerging cases due to COVID-19 need timely support and information sharing.
According to the World Health Organization, the COVID -19 pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of the entire world and yet the demand for mental health services is increasing, while the awareness is still very low.
It’s for this matter that Mental Health Uganda has come out to create a unified voice that influences the provisions of required services and opportunities in favour of people and survivors of mental illness in Uganda.
Mental Health Uganda is an indigenous Non – Governmental Organization with membership based Disabled Peoples Organization and was established in 1997 after it became clear that there was overwhelming marginalization and isolation and abuse of rights of persons with psychosocial disability of psychiatry services and their families.
In order to contribute to the wellbeing of the people with mental health problems, Mental Health Uganda is involved in advocacy work to influence legislation and legal framework policies that can promote the rights of the persons living and experiencing mental health problems.
Mental Health Uganda which is operating in 8 districts in Uganda which include, Kanungu and Mbarara in western Uganda, Mbale and Soroti in Eastern, Gulu and Lira in Nothern Uganda and Mpigi and Kampala in Central Uganda with the hope of rolling out to more districts in the near future have so far identified the media in order to realize her mission of filling gaps that exist in information flow regarding the plight of mental health.
The National Coordinator for Mental Health Uganda, Daniel Lubanga, told journalist in a two-day engagement in Kanungu district that the organization vision is to ensure that people with psychosocial disability are embraced with respect and are allowed to enjoy human rights just like any other citizens.
Lubanga said that although the cause of mental health problems remains elusive, two factors which include hereditary where people whose blood relatives had the illness, and certain genes are known to increase one’s risk of developing the illness depending on the life situations that may trigger it and environmental conditions that range from unhealthy relationships, poverty, gender-based domestic violence, excessive consumption of alcohol and other harmful drug substances, loss of loved ones and accidents, disasters such as wars, pandemics and chronic diseases stand out to be major situations to trigger out mental disorders.
However, Lubanga made it categorically clear that having one or two of these conditions is not sufficient enough that a person can have a mental health challenge in life because there will be as many factors as possible to combine to cause mental illness.
Geraldine Kauma, an official with Mental Health Uganda, highlighted several symptoms characteristic of people with mental health problems and listed some of them as, suicidal thoughts, feeling guilty or worthless, signs of violence, ability to see things that others can’t see, excessive fears and sudden change in behaviour like eating and sleeping.
She however expressed fears that people living with mental health problems continue to face challenges that include stigma and discrimination from families and community leading to violation of rights, poor quality care services, and unemployment since the majority are youth, and weak enforcement of laws that protect rights of the persons with mental health challenges.
Ms Kauma called for human dignity and privacy of a person with a mental health problem and also protection from physical, economic, social, and sexual forms of exploitation, and such a person should be given care and treatment to develop full potential that can help him or her integration in the community and such a person should not be discriminated against on grounds of mental illness among others.
According to Mental Health Uganda, the Police have a duty to protect the life, property and rights of all persons including persons with mental health challenges and such persons should not be arrested but be taken for assessment and treatment.
Ms Kauma said that there is more to good health than just being physically fit and to achieve this a person must have a healthy mind to help him think clearly and be able to solve the challenges that they may face in life and also be able to enjoy good relationships with other people in the community they live in.
As we are facing the post-COVID-19 era, it should be remembered that Mental Health Challenges and Mental illness knows no age, race, tribe, or religion and its timing is unpredicted therefore there is a need for sharing all the information about Mental Health and support people living with mental health problems.
All Regional Referral Hospitals, District Hospitals including Private Hospitals, Health Center IVs, and selected Health Center IIIs across the country have a component of psychosocial support for people with mental health problems
The government of Uganda has also put in place the Uganda Mental Health Advisory Board, which is the first reference in case of violation of rights with persons with mental health problems, Uganda Human Rights Commission can investigate complaints of violation of rights and the Equal Opportunities Commission has the mandate to investigate matters of marginalization and discrimination.
The Constitution of Uganda empowers any person who claims violation of or threat to her rights to apply to a competent Court for legal redress.
However, for any mental health challenge, consultation, counselling, psychosocial support or legal advice an affected person or relative can call Mental Health Uganda on telephone number 0778 035128 or 0701 748185 or toll-free number 0800212121 and get support.
Patson Baraire Mushaija is a seasoned journalist passionate about community reporting. This article was written with support from Mental Health Uganda.