What you need to know:
- Anecdotes gleaned from social networks like WhatsApp groups and interviews indicate that parents are worried that their children are experiencing a lot of stress from school.
A surge in mental health issues, academic stress, and the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown, which kept Ugandan schools closed for the longest period of time in the world, are having a devastating effect on learners, Saturday Monitor can reveal.
The rising instances of documented attempted and actual suicides among school-aged youngsters across the country are just the tip of the iceberg, according to people familiar with what is going on.
Anecdotal evidence reveals a crisis in schools, with many parents, guardians, and individual schools left to deal with the consequences amid a lack of a coordinated nationwide response and official figures to correlate what is happening.
More than 20 cases of suicides involving school-going children have been recorded in the current school year. In some cases, old challenges like the highhandedness of school administrators and teachers, negligence by parents, bullying, among others, are compounded by new ones such as the pressure to achieve after almost two years of widely reported learning losses and habits like sports betting.
Students who have devised cunning ways to smuggle and take substances covertly are abusing them at alarmingly high rates in various schools across the country. Elite private schools are hardest hit since their students can afford to buy any type of narcotic to feed their addictions.
Professionals we spoke to say most schools don’t have funding for mental health services or offer professional development for educators, with many resigned to the crisis playing out and dealing with the consequences.
Making up for lost time
In September, legislators adopted a motion moved by Aisha Kabanda—the Butambala District lawmaker—urging the government to increase funding for mental and psychiatric care services in the country.
“Something is going on in our schools and the Ministry of Education is not doing or saying something about it,” a distressed parent reached out to Saturday Monitor.
“Children are committing suicide in schools. It may look like nothing, but students are stressed. Lockdown and Covid-19 effect, the pressure schools are putting on these children to perform well yet they did not study for two years. [For example,] the current S3s did not study S2, but were promoted directly to S3. These students are doing two classes in one,” the parent, who has requested anonymity, told Saturday Monitor.
“The pressure by teachers and schools is too much on them. They are not teaching, but just pumping work into their heads...this term, many schools called S3 parents telling them if they do not make the average mark they are repeating right from the start and that’s S1! Can you imagine that? What do you expect?”
The parent told Saturday Monitor that they were summoned to pick up their daughter, an O-Level student at a top Kampala school, because “she was almost running mad.”
“Stressed, she had lost a lot of weight, I was told to seek professional help and counsel her. She was given help. What the girl told me when we reached home, you won’t believe. She told me she hates school and is tired of books,” the parent revealed.
School year cut short
On Tuesday, the government announced that the current school term will be shortened by two weeks to reduce daily contact as part of the Ebola spread curbs. It is not clear what impact this will have on learners. The government had earlier, among other things, cancelled visitation days and leavers’ parties being organised for candidate classes, denying them once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Recently, two students from top traditional schools in the country (names withheld) were rescued from attempted suicide. One tried to jump off a balcony at one of the facilities at the school.
Just 12 days into this month and several suicide cases have been registered in schools across the country. On November 8, it emerged that a Primary Seven pupil, who was due to sit their final in Buwonzi, Gombe Sub-country, Wakiso District, had killed himself after his mother told him off over a request to get a mathematical set. Local leaders, however, attributed the incident to the unresolved domestic violence issues in the particular family.
Anecdotes gleaned from social networks like WhatsApp groups and interviews indicate that parents are worried that their children are experiencing a lot of stress from school.
A trained counsellor, mentor, and professional coach who traverses schools across the country speaking about “discipline, habits such as drugs, social media, pornography, masturbation, lesbianism, and homosexuality” painted a grim picture to hundreds of parents in a private online platform.
After a general talk to the student community, the counsellor, who lists the schools she has visited, says she holds one-on-one sessions.
“Our children go through a lot of shocking and scary things. I encourage them to speak out or to express themselves through anonymous chits. I have a backup of my training but sometimes humanity kicks in and I have to take the horrific stories I have heard home,” she says.
“This generation is going through a lot. Children are stressed, examination stressed, rejection. In one school I cannot name, a student approached me and told me that lesbians in S5 were hitting on her. Another came to me to complain to me that her friends had stolen her girlfriend. She is a girl like me, a woman like me, but she was telling me that they had stolen her girlfriend!”
“The number of children who want to take their lives is so many, children are on drugs. One told me they learned from the father and now they have to carry the drugs to school. Children are going through rape by domestic workers, and we parents have no time for the children. One told me that her father gives her “everything” but when he returns from work, he minds his business,” she divulged.
The counsellor added that one child told her they had been abused from Primary Three to Six but her parents never believed her and only acknowledged what the child had been telling them when she was in Primary Six.
“One girl told me she has sex with her mother’s partner, her stepdad. He gives her money and she is enjoying it. Her spirit tells her she should stop, but she can’t because she enjoying it,” the counsellor said.
Ms Susan Nalwoga, aka ‘Aunty Sue’, a clinical psychologist, says government, parents and education institutions seem to have ignored the cases of suicide and homicidal tendencies in schools.
She says while some students are suicidal, others are homicidal, driving them to attack others or damage property.
She points out that while some people engage in such behaviour in order to attract the attention of others such as lovers, parents, or peers, others are motivated by a lack of accountability.
“There some who keep talking about it, but they do not do it … [this] does not mean they will never do it and such actions are as a result of thoughts, depression, stress, and other undiscovered conditions,” she adds.
Ms Nalwoga notes that depression makes one feel unworthy to live because to them, nobody seems to love them, something that causes stress. It further evolves to anxiety, to mild depression until excess depression and at this point, one fears facing reality and looks for an escape route; suicide.
She advises that at the point of excessive depression, when family members and clinical psychologists cannot handle such cases, they should be referred to a psychiatrist, who prescribes medication (anti-depressants) to lower their depression levels to a level of making sense of what they are told and answering questions rightfully.
Ms Nalwoga notes that many children are suffering from issues that they cannot reveal to their parents.
“There are issues like incest, sexual harassment, bullying, and torture, among children, and instead of opening up, they choose to die in silence,” she says.
Ms Nalwoga warns that it is a big concern that schools and educational institutions do not have onsite psychiatrists to help victims. She adds that schools instead have nurses who do less in helping with mental wellness.
The first remedy, she advises, is for the government to make directives so that all institutions of learning can have a clinical psychologist or a mental health specialist.
Similarly, she advises parents to create a favourable environment where their children can always speak out openly, do health checkups and also have family doctors to always guide them in case of unusual conditions.
Ms Nalwoga says there is a need to create limits and supervise children in whatever they do, including smartphone usage.
Similarly, Mr Robert Kikomeko—the proprietor of Maisha schools and Maisha Holistic Africa Foundation in Kagadi—points out parental guidance that neglects children’s interests and capabilities as a cause of depression among young people.
“Some parents push their children into their own directions, for instance forcing them to offer Sciences in school yet their capability is in Arts,” he notes, adding, “This, in the long run, suffocates a child to a point of depression.”
Single parenthood is another issue Mr Kikomeko hints on. He explains that some children never recover from the bitter breakups between their parents, something that keeps haunting them and gets worse when one parent moves on and the only option is to grow up with a step parent, who sometimes mistreats them.
He further notes that abuses of various forms also force children into depression because some of these come with suffocation and shame—elements that deter them from speaking out about something that kills them softly.
Mr Kikomeko, however, offers some solutions to address depression among children.
“Parents should raise the confidence of children when they are low. Teaching them that there is more to life and they can always do better is one way to do it,” he says.
He also emphasises small things parents, guardians and teachers can always pay attention to while dealing with children, for example listening to them, understanding them, and offering rightful guidance to them. This gives them a sense of belonging and knowing they are loved.
Besides losing two years of their youth to a pandemic, children also got to experience domestic fights whilst cooped up. The 2021 police annual crime report also showed that sex-related offences and child neglect spiked due to the pandemic and its attendant effects. Domestic violence in families was mainly attributed to disputes over family property, failure to provide for the family, drug and alcohol abuse, and cases of infidelity.
In all, 17,533 cases of domestic violence were reported to the police. This was nearly as high as the 17,664 cases reported in 2020.
Police in the 2021 annual crime report says the closure of schools for about 20 months during the lockdown to curb the spread to Covid-19 exposed several children to sexual violence. Young girls were taken advantage of.
“Some of the girls were defiled in the process of doing domestic chores like collecting water and firewood, especially when they are sent alone. At least 281 children were defiled by suspects who were HIV-positive, followed by 112 children who were defiled by their guardians and 107 children defiled by biological parents,” the report reveals.
In October, police in Lango Sub-region said at least four children below 17 years are taking their own lives every month. The increase in suicide cases in the Sub-region is blamed mainly on domestic violence and unmanaged mental illnesses.
In neighbouring Acholi Sub-region, it emerged that six children between 10 and 20 years committed suicide.
As children return home from school in a few days, they find communities struggling with mental health issues, domestic violence, high cost of living, among others.
According to the latest report from the Uganda Counselling Association (UCA), and the Ministry of Health, 14 million Ugandans are mentally sick, which translates to 35 in 100 Ugandans battling a mental health problem.
In January, Bridget Kemigisa, 7, a resident of Igunda B Village, Kakabara Town Council, Kyegegwa District, was beaten to death by her 33-year-old father, who returned home drunk on Thursday afternoon and found her sleeping in his bed.
The ones we’ve lost
Denis Tukei, 20—Bukoyo Secondary School Iganga
On November 3, Tukei, a Senior Six student was found hanging in the dormitory by fellow students after a lunch break. He had earlier been sent by the school administration to collect the school balance of Shs1.2m. In a letter he left behind, he informed school authorities that he had been given fees but mismanaged it
Bright Namusoke, 20—Kitebi Secondary School
On July 6, Namutebi, a Senior Six student committed suicide using a rope in their house in Ngobe Zone, Bunamwaya Division in Makindye Ssabagabo Municipality in Wakiso District. It is alleged that she did so following an insult by a teacher at school.
Julius Ssekiziyivu, 15—Kasenyi Secondary School Mubende
Ssekiziyivu was found hanging on a mango tree located on church land on November 4. It is alleged that upon returning from school, he moved to a friend’s grazing area and got a rope that he used to hang himself. Reasons for his act are still unknown.
Muwonge Muzafaru, 23—Uganda Technical College Bushenyi
Muzafaru committed suicide in a garage in Ruti, Mbarara city on September 18. Before this, he had lost Shs2m in a football bet. At the time of his death, Muzafaru was doing Industrial training in Mbarara City.
Josephine Namuli, 17—Wanyange Girls SSS
Namuli’s body was found in the school dormitory on June 7, 2022. It was reported that the Senior Four student hanged herself using a rope that was found on her bed. The suicidal act was attributed to family problems the deceased had been grappling with for some time.
Kasule Arafat, 11—Kabira UMEA Primary School Mpigi
Kasule reported to school on September 14 at about 8am but disappeared thereafter. A search was conducted around the school premises, only to find the 11-year-old pupil dead, and the body hanging on a mango tree at a church metres away from the school.
Bibiana Nasasira, 22—Kabale University
On June 29, Nasasira took her own life by hanging behind her sister’s house. The deceased’s father, Kalist Sirigenda, termed the daughter’s death as a family curse because he had lost many relatives through suicide. At the time, Nasasira was pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Social Works and Social Administration at Kabale University.
Maureen Nantaambi Nantume, 6—Bweyogerere Central Zone, Kira Municipality, Wakiso District
Nantambi committed suicide on January 12, using a piece of cloth she tied on a decker bed in her room. The family said her move might have been a protest against taking her back to a village school. A neighbour said the deceased did not come out to play with her fellows, who kept calling her name during the fateful day. Upon entering the house, they found her body hanging.
Miriam Anyango, 18—Aputi Secondary School Amolator
It is alleged that Anyango committed suicide in early May after her father gave her no hope of returning to school for term two over school fees. She disappeared from home on a Sunday evening, only to be found hanging on a mango tree metres away from home the following day.
Paul Luyimbazi, 14— St Jude Thaddeus Primary School, Bukomansimbi
The Primary Seven candidate committed suicide and was found hanging in the school library by another pupil, who made an alarm that drew teachers’ attention.
Lamula Nandobya 9 —Kangulumira, CoU Primary School
The nine-year-old resident of Makindye Zone in Kangulumira Town Council, Kayunga District, hanged herself for fear of being punished.
She had stayed home because of a strike by Arts teachers over a pay rise.
“I think if she had gone to school, she would not have died but this strike has caused all this,” Ms Rauma Nandobya, the deceased’s elder sister, said.
Emmanuel Okello, 18— Makerere College School
Okello, a resident of Parliament Village, Kitukutwe, Kiwologoma, Kira Municipality, Wakiso District, took his life on October 1. He locked his father inside the house and committed suicide in the compound.
He had told his family that he didn’t want to return to Makerere College and his father got him a position at St Kizito SS Namugongo, but he wasn’t happy about the choice. The father suspected it could be the cause if the suicide.
Vin Karungi, 18— Rwamabale Primary School
The 18-year-old pupil committed suicide following a disagreement with her father over her recently acquired mobile smartphone, whose source she couldn’t explain.
Her father confiscated the phone and hid it in the house, but she recovered it and continued using it. Her angry father beat her up. She took poison and died.