Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Mental health specialists are concerned that current isolation and quarantine strategies to halt the spread of COVID-19 will facilitate social withdrawal, a risky practice for people with suicidal tendencies.
The caution comes as Uganda continues to restrain non-essential activities and asking others to stay home as a measure to control the spread of COVID-19. Across the country, schools were closed and learning switched to digital platforms, a number of offices have gone entirely online while bars, hotels and recreational centres remain closed.
But the specialists are waning that such prolonged isolation may trigger mental health problems resulting from the loss of everyday connections to friends, colleagues, family and the community. They add that such loneliness can lead to depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart diseases and a shorter life span.
Derrick Kizza, the Executive Director of a local NGO Mental Health Uganda says that even with a risk of an unprecedented number of mental health challenges in the near future, the interventions currently available in the country are insufficient and in some places just on paper.
Kiiza reports that Just last week, his organisation received 22 cases of people with mental health challenges that found themselves being harassed by curfew enforcers. He also points to several complaints by people on long term mental illnesses treatment who were not able to pick their refills because of a lockdown on transport.
Although there is not so much research on the psychological toll of social distancing during epidemics, studies on the outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 flu, Ebola and other infectious diseases since the early 2000’s show that people who were quarantined experienced both short and long-term mental health problems.
Kiiza is concerned that the psychosocial support which would have received the biggest funding and available for whoever needs it after the pandemic is only available for only patients who have recovered from COVID-19 yet NGOs that were helping fill the void are not allowed to work.
More fears are also arising out of an increase in cases of gender-based violence. In their latest report released last week, the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development noted that from March 28 to April 28 lockdown period, 3,280 cases of gender-based violence were reported and some 280 cases of violence against children.
According to Beatrice Kayaga, a lawyer with the Women’s Pro Bono Initiative, an entity that gives legal aid to disadvantaged females, all these people under normal circumstances would have had some kind of psychosocial support but this didn’t happen and yet many others didn’t get an opportunity to report.
Kayaga said the only option for people with mental distress is so far seeking online counselling, a new phenomenon that is not well appreciated by many.
Dr Hafsah Ssentongo Lukwata, a mental health focal person at the Ministry of Health who is also a member of the psychosocial support committee on the National COVID-19 task force says that they are yet to plan for post-COVID mental health care. She acknowledged that they have gaps since epidemics don’t give them time to plan.
“We don’t have the number of providers that we need. We looked for counsellors who have worked with NGOs, got some from KCCA and others from IDI (Infectious Disease Institute) and asked for help from Butabika hospital. All I can say is that at least Entebbe and Mulago hospitals are covered when it comes to psychosocial support”.
Lukwata said their interventions are focused on helping those who have recovered from COVID-19 settle in back in their communities by counselling their neighbours and relatives they go back to.
But experts say that the country risks paying a heavy price if community psychological support is not given enough attention.