How Okiring rose above mental illness

Hellena Okiring urges women to make mental health a priority. PHOTO/STEPHEN OTAGE

What you need to know:

  • Unhealthy or toxic work environments affect people’s mental health unknowingly.
  • Once in a while, go for psychiatric assessment.
  • Effects of working in toxic work environments include getting fibroids, miscarriages, depression, anxiety, aches which affect productivity.

One of the silent but the devastating effects of the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns that people rarely talk about openly, was the sudden spike in cases of mental illnesses.
The uncertainty of when the two lockdowns would end and the timelines for the arrival of the treatment and cure,presented a gloomy picture for individuals and families and in some situations, caused domestic violence. The confinement of people into their homes made the situation even worse. 

The only source of hope for good news; radio and television, also worsened matters with broadcasts of more depressing news of how the pandemic was wreaking havoc in other parts of the world and overstretching healthcare facilities. 
Following the lockdown two years ago, Hellena Okiring battled with several mental health issues. The toxic working environment couple with addiction to pain killers such as Panadol, Declophenac, and A gel muscle relaxer caused her mental issues . 

The genesis 
 “In January 2020, I was hired by a women rights organisation. I did not know that my new job would entail supporting women who would be mentally challenged during the pandemic. April 1, 2020 was the reporting date. Yet, a month earlier, government had announced a total lockdown across the country.  
My employer said I would be given the necessary support to work from home. They set up a home office and gave me internet and all the airtime I needed to execute my duties. My induction too was done online. 
At the height of raging pandemic, I was still figuring out how to go about work. Many calls came through as women reported domestic violence, which needed urgent attention. 
The whole of April 2020, my new routine involved attending to zoom calls with the bosses, listening to women’s issues, counselling them and making daily email reports.

In May 2020, I started feeling exhausted after every zoom call. I would struggle to hear the person at the other end of the phone. The exhaustion was accompanied by a throbbing headache at the end of the month. The situation was getting unbearable and my body started giving way. 
Before I knew it, I had constant pain and communication with colleagues was becoming strange. My colleagues were working from different parts of the world with different time zones. 
This meant that a phone call would come through and I had to answer it even deep in the night.
By the end of June, I found myself taking a lot of pain killers including Panadol, Declophenac, and A gel muscle relaxer. One day, after a long zoom call, I went to bed but pain woke me up. 

Consultation and diagnosis 
When I consulted my aunt, who is also a counsellor, to assess my condition,  she advised me to go for an assessment at Butabika National Referral Hospital, to rule out mental health issues. A friend accompanied me to the hospital. After examination, I was told I had two conditions; one- an adjustment disorder similar to eating disorders and bipolar-like tendencies. 
The doctor explained that the adjustment disorder was caused by me taking on a new job within conditions of anxiety, working away from a workplace which made me appear to be working on guess work in an isolated environment. It was also compounded by lack of orientation to the work culture and systems. 

This was worsened by the lockdown stress, poor management of the zoom meetings and phone calls and besides, all the staff had their own challenges they were dealing with. 
The second condition I was diagnosed with, is called myalgia. This is a condition where the body processes trauma and stress by absorbing it in the muscles, which was causing the body pain. 
The doctor explained to me that the pain killers I was consuming to subdue the pain, were taking toll on my health.

More complications 
Besides the myalgia and the adjustment disorder, I had also missed monthly periods, a condition I was told is known as Oligo menorrhea. 
The doctors told me the only reasons a woman in her reproductive age would miss her periods is during pregnancy, after giving birth and when she is under tense stress which causes the uterine linings to thin. 
To treat this condition, I was advised to take a break from work for one month. I was advised to see a gynaecologist, psychotherapist, psychiatrist, and physiotherapist. 
The gynaecologist helped me handle the reproductive health issues of treating Oligo menorrhea. The physiotherapist handled the fibromyalgia muscle pains that were caused by anxiety, tension and stress through exercises, medicine and general lifestyle changes.

The psychotherapist walked me through what happened, identified work life challenges and advised on how to stop the recurrence of similar conditions in future. 
I do regular check-ins with the counsellor, who advises on ways to maintain a healthy mental lifestyle. I footed the bills until an NGO, which was familiar with my condition, stepped in and settled the bills, which ranged between Shs360,000 and Shs520,000 per session per specialist. 

The healing  journey 
In June 2021, I felt I was ready to resume work. When I emailed I employer to inform them that I had recovered, my boss told me to attach my medical reports from the doctors, which I did. 
To my dismay, the following week, one of the office staff delivered my termination letter at home in Kitintale a city suburb. 
This was another setback. But a pity party was not an option either. I decided to use this experience to reach out to people dealing with physical, mental health issues such as addiction. 
 I opened a You Tube channel dubbed MindShow, which discusses issues of mental health, drugs and substance abuse.
 Through this programme, I landed a job as the country director of Blue Cross an international NGO, dealing with alcohol and substance abuse among youth and teenagers. 
If there is one thing I can tell the world out there, unhealthy or toxic work environments which affect people’s mental health unknowingly are real. Once in a while, go for psychiatric assessment.

Effects of toxic work spaces 
Some of the effects of working in toxic work environments include getting fibroids, miscarriages, depression, anxiety, body aches, which affect the psychological and mental wellbeing of a person. A toxic work environment is one where you are pushed beyond your limits which could cause worries and lack of focus.
Some of the characteristics of a toxic work environment include being overworked, disrespectful behaviour from colleagues, bullying by co-workers, berating, junior staff being appointed bosses, overstay in probation, devaluing people, supervisors delaying to approve leave, ones work being undermined. 

Your mental well-being is critical
Students struggle with managing peer pressure and freedom, pressure to pass examinations from both the teachers and parents.
To all human resource managers, the mental condition of your employees is paramount. Always investigate the mental health of your employees before terminating or taking them through any disciplinary action because they could be going through unresolved situations which arose from within the work environment.”