Mental health is a subject close to my heart, but that is a story for another day. I got to meet this athletic dark complexioned lady who exudes passion and zeal for mental health and felt a special connection. Spotting short white hair, Gerry Opoka is as bold as the cause she stands for. Dancing for mental health.
Previously, she worked as a marketer with MTN, later she decided to follow her passion to dance for a living. But it is not just dancing. She was inspired and driven by a pain many families experience but prefer to keep silent about- mental ill health.
"It hit home when l saw my sister who was struggling with substance and alcohol abuse to ask myself what l could do to make her life better while making a difference in other people's lives as well. When she got admitted to Butabika Referral Hospital, l got to interact with other patients, too. At the Drug and Alcohol Unit, l discovered that the patients desired to expend their energy by constructively spending their time.
Another sister of mine, who suffers anxiety attacks, really gets clingy and does not want to let me out of her sight during those moments, led me to wonder how many other families are suffering. If l am going to the bathroom she will be there if l have clients to see she will follow me there and wait while l work. This has been a challenge. But understanding her helped me be able to support her.
While l reach out to others, my sister also joins me at the dance studio. Being a Zumba instructor, l decided to offer free Zumba classes to the patients once a month to lift their spirit," explains an enthusiastic Opoka.
ZUMBA FOR HEALTH
Zumba fitness is proven to promote psychological wellbeing, help relieve stress and improve cognitive skills and prevent cardiovascular disease among other benefits, she observes.
According to Shubaya Kasule, a clinical psychologist, with Global Health Uganda, concurs that dance therapy acts as a means of creative imagination which helps to promote positive moods among clients. "It also helps release energy through a constructive channel of dance," she adds.
Keeping in mind the benefits of dance to one's mental wellness, finally the hospital administration gave Opoka a green light to dance with the patients to health. This was a year after she wrote her proposal to Butabika Hospital. The dance classes have attracted people on substance abuse and those dealing with mental disorders at the hospital.
Every first Wednesday of the month, Opoka with some ladies who want to make a difference come together and dance for an hour with patients at the hospital. This is a time when they get to have a chat about the challenges of addiction and how they are coping.
During the Zumba dance moves some ladies were nervous around the patients with psycho social disabilities but at least it is a start. The heart to make a difference is evident. The journey to break stigma and the silence around mental health issues has begun. Like Opoka states; "When we are dancing we are one." The dancing helps break the barriers.
For a moment there the patients clad in green uniforms and medical officers forget their roles and get lost in vigorous dance moves led by the Zumba instructor Opoka. The excitement among the participants is tangible as l too join in the dancing. I notice a smile here and another there as we all break into a sweat while having fun.
There is something about music even when you do not understand the language the musical beat has a way of captivating one and uniting people.
Opoka, is in her element as she guides us into the fast paced Zumba mood. She is a woman with purpose and on a mission to create awareness and get the conversation around mental health issues going.
CORPORATE WOMEN EMBRACE ZUMBA
At her Soul dance studio located in Kamwokya, corporate women have embraced Zumba as part of their exercise regimen.
"When the women come in, they develop a glow and bond as time goes on. After the classes women get to talk. Every last Friday, of the month, we have a breakfast where we bond and talk about issues that concern us. It is more than dancing at Soul studio," she adds emphatically.
Her face book page of the dance studio spots events when they reach out to patients at Butabika by having a grooming day whereby patients enjoy free haircuts and benefit from donations of clothing. She has taken a step further by creating a campaign to fundraise for the construction of bio digester toilets for all wards starting with two which cost sh67M. Each toilet consists of two toilet stanses, two shower rooms and one bio digester system.
CAMPAIGN IS BIRTHED
The campaign dubbed; ‘Dance for Mental Health' was crowned with the Soul Zumbathon late last year. It was an action packed event at Garden City rooftop that attracted about 1,000 people whereby participants danced for 4 hours.
Organisations championing mental health awareness like My Story, Becoming a Better you and Live Hive were in attendance including the Executive Director Dr. David Basangwa of Butabika National Referral Hospital.
Opoka's intention of bringing different organisations together was to enable people who need help know where to find.
Opoka observes that though the awareness campaign is on; "Our people do not understand the use of psychologists they think it is a muzungu ‘thing' . Yet this is mental health. Mental instability disables the mind. Parents are struggling to understand their children, carers are clueless about mental health. Hopefully, at the climax of this campaign more people will talk about mental wellness without being shy about it."
It is a journey of a thousand miles which starts with a single step like the Chinese saying goes. Let us embrace mental wellness and be the difference we want to see.