2nd lockdown worsens mental health crisis, says psychologist

Mr Moses Karis Oteba, a psychologist at DefendDefenders, an international non-governmental organisation. Photo Courtesy 

What you need to know:

Some people perceive it as an issue for well-off western countries, yet, in reality, the problem is affecting everyone

One of the dominant issues that has arisen during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is the mental health crisis. Several sections of the media are reporting that many people are struggling with mental health issues because of the numerous effects brought by the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown. Daily Monitor’s Esther Oluka spoke to Mr Moses Karis Oteba, a psychologist at DefendDefenders, an international non-governmental organisation, that seeks to strengthen the work of human rights defenders.

The issue of mental health has been a dominant discussion during this second lockdown. Why is the problem raising dust at this particular time?

A notable number of people were not aware of the psychological impact of the first lockdown. Most people thought they were strong enough and could handle the effects brought about by the first lockdown. Besides, we did not know exactly what we were dealing with then. This notion has been challenged this time round. In the second lockdown, more people have become vulnerable after remembering what they went through in the first lockdown. Also the continuous information, including inaccurate material on Covid-19, making rounds is not making life any easy for people. In the end, a notable section of Ugandans have been forced to reach out for psychological help during this time. By the way, some people think that people who seek psychological help are either crazy or mad, but, it is not the issue. It is important that people understand what exactly mental health is.

So, in simple terms, what is mental health?

It focuses on the wellness of the mind and emotions. But, life as you know it, unavoidable things happen that can disorganise the wellness of the mind. Things such as loss of a loved one, loss of a job, breakdown of relationships or marriages, poor academic performance, self-image issues, among other problems. These issues can cause one to have a mental health crisis. Identifying the triggers and getting required help can enable one deal with the crisis. Some people, however, prefer not to associate so much with mental health because of the stigma around it. But people are suffering and unfortunately, the majority are in silent distress, which should not be the case. The more we speak about this issue, especially during the pandemic, the more people will be helped.

Why is there a lot of stigma around mental health?

Some people perceive it as an issue for well-off western countries, yet, in reality, the problem is affecting everyone. Our culture associates mental health challenges with being a consequence of evil doing. In the African setting, we have been raised in such a manner where by people are advised not to openly discuss their problems. You might have noticed that many times, when you ask someone how they are doing, they will respond, “I am fine, thank you,” yet, in reality someone is not entirely okay because of some personal issues. When you are not okay, it is fine to tell someone you are not fine. Please, talk to someone else.

How many mental health related cases are you currently registering on average, in a week?

Our organisation registers between 10 and 15 cases among women on a weekly basis. Then, for men, we register between five and 10, still on a weekly basis. The numbers of people seeking support include those who come to the organisation and those who seek private consultations with me.

What are the most dominant concerns people are raising during the lockdown?

A notable number of people are reporting anxiety and panic attacks. This is because of the worry, fear, and, the uncertainty the lockdown has brought upon us. Many people are asking the question, “When will all this end?”

How then should one deal with anxiety and panic attacks?

Mostly, talk to trusted people about the problem(s) you are having. Don’t bottle up your issues. When you do that, you continue suppressing those feelings and one day, you will be forced to explode. When you speak out, you sort of empty what would have been stored inside and empty it elsewhere. You will be pouring out and creating space for other important things. Always remember that when you share a problem with someone, at least you are half solving it. A problem you think might be so big may actually turn out to be a small thing when you talk to someone.  Please, don’t isolate yourself or keep quiet with your problems, especially during these trying times. Put shame aside and get help. Not forgetting, try and find ways of constantly keeping yourself busy. One of the triggers of anxiety is being idle. You sit there worrying about so many things and in the end, magnifying your problem. In case you’re not working, then, resort to reading.

The issue of relationships and marriages breaking down prevailed in the first lockdown? How about in the second lockdown? Are you receiving complaints of friction among couples?

Absolutely. There is a way going to work every day, being away from each other sort of helps cool off tension between couples. But then when couples are constantly into each other’s space, it can cause friction and irritation because each party notices every fault of their partner. For couples whose relationships or marriages have been affected during this lockdown, I urge them to choose the right time to address the issues. Discuss openly about how each person feels. Secondly, learn to take life and things easy, do not be too hard on yourself or others. Life currently is already hard for everyone. But also, I am happy to mention that some couples and families have thrived during the lockdown because they have had ample time to spend with each other and resolve issues.

In this lockdown, different social media platforms have been awash with all sorts of stories on Covid-19, including frequent death announcements. What impact can this cause on one’s emotional state?

Speaking of social media, it has actually done more harm than good as far as mental health is concerned. It is very toxic especially with the flood of negative information. If you are the kind of person who is constantly on social media posting, reading and taking in all kinds of information, you might be doing yourself a disservice. Your brain is processing all kinds of things, which may in the end overwhelm you at some point. My advice is that if you can, try and stay away from social media during these pandemic times. You will be saving yourself from a lot of stress.

How about those that can’t avoid social media all together because of their work? What then should they do?

There is a saying that one cannot stop a bird from flying over their head, but, then one can prevent it from nestling there. Yes, social media is a necessary evil, but one can choose on what to focus on and what not to pay attention to. Sieve out the rubbish.

Rise in mental cases 

In January this year, Daily Monitor reported that when Uganda’s healthcare facilities began experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases in June 2020, mental health units at most regional referral hospitals were converted into Covid Treatment Units (CTUs). This resulted in high mental health cases in the country. Dr Juliet Nakku, the deputy executive director of Butabika National Referral Mental Hospital, told Daily Monitor in July 2020 that between July 12 and July 18, the hospital received about 1,050 cases requiring admission, yet previously they received between 800 and 900 patients per week. There are no clear statistics to show the current number of patients seeking mental health care at both regional and national levels.