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Laypeople bridge gap as COVID-19 takes toll on mental health

Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | At the time of our meeting, Linda Nsababera was on her way to meet a company director who had closed and asked her staff to work from home at the height of the lockdown instituted by the Ministry of Health to halt further spread of coronavirus disease.

The meeting she told URN, was on request by the director to talk about what mental health issues manifest at the workplace and how they can be sorted. On-call, she had already intimated to her that she was stressed by working from home.

Similar revelations have become a norm for Nsababera, a business consultant turned mental health advocate. Since April, through an online initiative Thrive Uganda, Nsababare and colleagues have been able to meet up to 400 people with especially stress mood and anxiety issues.

Through the program, they embarked on a campaign dubbed; ‘Are you Okay?’ meant to help with mental wellness and link those battling mental illnesses to care. With the advent of COVID-19, she says there has been a lot of information on nutrition and hygiene in addition to prevention of other diseases that could worsen the pandemic but mental health was lagging even with piling evidence that some of the adopted measures to contain the disease were taking a heavy toll on people.

The Ministry of Health is currently struggling with high numbers of people going to health facilities with mental illnesses. Dr Charles Olaro, the director of clinical services says that Butabika National Mental Referral Hospital is specifically overwhelmed and that they are currently doing an analysis to establish the exact triggers of these illnesses.

But this hasn’t just started over the previous months, quarantine centres have been reporting returnees from abroad grappling with mental illnesses. Just last month, the ministry confirmed 18 people who returned from the Middle East to be battling mental health issues.

According to Dr Juliet Nakku, the acting executive director of Butabika hospital, the 550-bed capacity facility has since filled up with the rising number of girls who returned from the Middle East not admitted there. Outpatient numbers have since increased too, she revealed.

But Nsababera says such complications can be nipped in the bud if someone is helped early on through simple approaches and offering simple solutions that are used in everyday life like listening to them and encouraging them to speak out.

The Thrive Network that consists of psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, addictionologists, child and adolescent mental health specialists in addition to laypeople was formed such that they can have a holistic approach to the problem that is highly neglected, yet a few who seek care go through mainly the clinical path often too late that people go through months or even years of treatment with drugs.

However, she notes that while they are encouraging people to come out, there’s still a high stigma about mental health in Uganda. The majority of those that have so far reached out to them did it anonymously through texting and a few that followed up to reveal their identity did it after long explanations.

Even for those that the experts recommended a physical mental health examination, some would go mute or took time to accept a physical meeting.

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