Universities, govt launch study to address rising mental illness

Mental health problems have escalated during the Coronavirus pandemic. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Cases of mental health conditions have been on the rise in the country, with reported numbers shooting up from 491,013 in the financial year 2019/2020 to 550,373 in the financial year 2020/2021, according to government statistics.

Makerere University has partnered with two American universities and the Ministry of Health to conduct a 5-year study aimed at addressing social drivers of mental illness in the country.

Cases of mental health conditions have been on the rise in the country, with reported numbers shooting up from 491,013 in the financial year 2019/2020 to 550,373 in the financial year 2020/2021, according to government statistics.

Addressing journalists today in Kampala, Prof Monica Swahn, one of the lead researchers from America’s Kennesaw State University, said they will determine the link between place and mental health among young women who live in the slums of Kampala.

“The study will determine if vocational training and women empowerment initiatives such as strengthening entrepreneurship skills will improve mental health trajectories for women in poverty,” she said.

She added: “Low-cost training such as vocational skilling can really impact mental health trajectories for these women. If we find that it does, it’s an intervention that can be scalable, it will be much easier –from a government perspective, to support vocational and mental health training.”

Dr Hafsa Lukwata, the assistant commissioner in charge of mental health at the Ministry of Health, said at the event that the study will be important in addressing the root causes of mental health problems to avoid relapses.

The $3.3 million (Shs11.5bn) Topowa research study was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health of America. The study will involve focus group discussions in slums, community mapping, use of sleep wearables, and saliva tests to detect and determine stress levels, according to the researchers.

Associate professor Catherine Abbo, a psychiatrist and senior lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry, College of Health Sciences of Makerere University, said they have witnessed worrying increases in the problem of mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our mental health is maintained by the environment we live in. if we live in an environment that is poverty-stricken, an environment where you can’t go to school, you will have a higher chance of developing mental illness,” she said. She is the co-investigator in the study.

Ms Anna Nabulya, the deputy executive director of Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL), an organization that works in Kampala slums, told journalists that Covid-19 induced disruption of the livelihood has significantly affected the wellbeing in slums.

She said many young girls who were impregnated during the prolonged closure of schools are showing worrying levels of stress and mental illnesses with many resorting to substance abuse.

“Young people are trying to survive post-Covid because for the last two years some of them have not been working because they were laid off. Those who are doing business have suffered losses and they have no capital right now and many of them are facing sexual and gender-based violence,” she said.

She added: “The biggest number of girls who are reporting to our centres are telling us that it was either the father, brother or uncle who impregnated them and others don’t even know who impregnated them because of multiple sexual partners. All this increases mental illness.”

Mr Rogers Kasrye, the executive director of UYDEL which is also involved in the study, said many people who are enrolled in vocational training either don’t complete or don’t concentrate because of mental health issues.

He said the government interventions will not yield many results if important mental issues within the population are not addressed.

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