With the raising cost of living, pressures of modern life and substance abuse, many Ugandans are suffering silently with various mental illnesses. According to the latest report from the Uganda Counselling Association and the Ministry of Health, 14 million Ugandans are mentally sick, writes Cecilia Okoth
An estimated 14 million Ugandans suffer from a form of mental disorder, statistics from the health ministry and the Uganda Counselling Association have revealed.
What this means is that every 35 out of 100 Ugandans you meet in your day-to-day activities may be battling a mental health problem.
The above statistics, according to experts, are of people who have reported to health facilities with acute conditions.
Whereas these were recorded in 2019, health experts on Monday said the figures could have since doubled given the restrictions that were brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If each of the 14 million people interacts with at least two other individuals, then almost the entire population (42 million) Ugandans are affected by mental health directly or indirectly. Today, this number has grown exponentially because of the events of the last two years,” said Dr Charles Olaro, the director of curative services at the health ministry.
Olaro was addressing journalists during the launch of the mental health awareness month of May at the health ministry headquarters on Monday
He said the theme for the awareness month; Mental Health for All: Making Mental Health A National Priority, speaks to the current challenges we are faced with as a nation, following the COVID-19 period.
“COVID-19 forced many people into spaces of loneliness both mentally and physically. The objective of the activities during the week is to bring to the fore the nature of loneliness and how it relates to mental health, showing people that while it can happen to anybody, there is hope and help,” Olaro said.
When COVID-19 first struck Uganda in March 2020, Government announced a raft of measures to contain the spread of the then little-known deadly virus. However, some of the measures like closure of schools, places of worship as well as restrictions on movements negatively impacted on people’s livelihood and wellbeing.
This, as a result, drove people into depression, anxiety, abuse of alcohol and other substances, gender-based violence and in worst case scenarios death among those who suffered severe COVID-19 infections.
WHAT ARE MENTAL DISORDERS
According to the World Health Organisation, mental disorders vary and present differently. They are generally characterised by a combination of abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others.
Mental disorders include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses, dementia, and developmental disorders including autism.
Whereas some of the mental disorders require treatment offered by professional practitioners, Dr Hafsa Lukwata, the acting commissioner in charge of mental health and substance abuse at the health ministry, said the bulk of the population has resorted to seeking help from religious leaders and witchdoctors, which instead worsens their problem.
“We are seeing people seeking support from non-professionals. These are mostly referred by friends. Yet each mental disorder has different forms of treatment. If you go to a wrong place for care, you are delaying the care you need to get but also making your situation worse,” she said, adding that some of the information shared in these spaces may damage the person more.
Uganda is ranked among the top six countries in Africa in rates of depression disorders (4.6%) while 2.9% live with anxiety disorders, according to 2017 statistics from WHO. About 5.1% of females and 3.6% of males are affected by depression and anxiety.
Another nationwide survey by the health ministry to ascertain the magnitude of mental disorders in Uganda is in the offing.
“With these statistics, it is imperative that we come together with other stakeholders to build a positive narrative and awareness around mental health that works to end stigma so that people can support each other more and seek professional help sooner than later,” Olaro said.
NEED FOR PROFESSIONAL COUNSELLOR
Geraldine Opoka, the founder and CEO Soul Foundation, said people only go to hospitals when their conditions become acute.
“Everyone who has a mind can have a mental health problem. But we have not yet fully embraced mental illness by going to professionals. Most of us go to our friends for guidance,” she said.
Her organisation, working closely with the health ministry, currently offers therapeutic services such as dancing to patients admitted at Butabika National Referral Hospital, to destigmatise mental health.
Janet Kantalama Katana, a psychologist working with Safe Places Uganda, a private mental treatment centre and a member of the Uganda Counselling Association (UCA), said to be a counselling psychologist, you needed to have studied for a minimum of three years. She said there are elements in the course that teach one how to study and piece up patterns of human behaviour.
“People need to seek help from qualified practitioners because it is actually worse to treat a person that has been handled badly than a person who goes directly to professionals. They know where to start and even when you have been attended to by a professional and feel that they haven’t handled you well, you have avenues for redress,” she said.
UCA is an umbrella body for all people qualified in the counselling, psychology and guidance field. The association currently has over 1,000 members, most of whom are working privately. There are also only 42 psychiatrists in the country, which translates to one psychiatrist per one million people.
Regarding affordability of services, Katana said consultation fees range from sh50,000 to sh300,000. However, the element of cost, she explained, is a policy issue, saying the public service schemes of employment do not provide for psychologists and counsellors in hospitals.
“As per the laws governing mental health, a psychologist should be under the allied professionals but we are not yet there. Psychologists and counsellors do not have a legal framework where they belong,” she said.
ACKNOWLEDGING THE PROBLEM
Dr Jackson Amone, the commissioner clinical services at the health ministry, said the first form of healing for a person confronted with a mental disorder is acknowledging that he or she has a problem and needs to be helped.
“Someone should be able to realise that they need assistance because that person will be easier to treat than one who will be forced. A person who acknowledges they need help reacts to treatment better than one who has been coerced,” Amone said.