Are Ugandans [MPs] ‘sad, stressed or depressed?’

Emilly Comfort Maractho

What you need to know:

  • For many Ugandans, the absence of suicide, may not be the real indicator of an absence of depression...

The Daily Monitor on Wednesday, October 19, 2022, carried a headline that refuted claims of ‘mentally ill’ MPs by Parliament.

The story goes, that Busia Municipality MP, Mr Geoffrey Macho, in a bid to raise awareness around mental health, had claimed that every 50 MPs out of 100 are depressed. There are many reasons to explain this situation, the story goes. 

The denial has been swift. Well, not entirely. They are not depressed but like other Ugandans, they are sad and stressed. 

The positive indicators, to refute that claim, is that 50 percent of depressed people commit suicide, and since no MP in our history has, ‘these fellows are just stressed, not depressed’.

The other is that ‘health specialists, not observers, can diagnose mental illness’. What a relief, that it is ‘just’ sadness and stress, not depression.

Depression is serious business, not to be taken lightly. Due to the stigma around it, many people in our context do not go for diagnosis. The specialists are few. And it is very expensive to try and get help.

Because of community connections, depressed people may not commit suicide, but it does not mean that they do not exist in significant numbers. 

In this particular story, it is clear that the problem for many is the framing and use of the word depressed.

And the reason that it is a problem is the mental picture of depression, which people wish not to be associated with. So we rather pretend that there is no such thing as depression because people in large numbers are not committing suicide. 

In some societies, there is no shame in admitting that one is depressed, and there are mechanisms for people to get help, including leave from work, with support. In our context, admitting to your employer that things have gone south could send you home, for good. People are largely secretive, even when they are aware.

It is commendable, that there has been increased coverage of mental health. I have used the term mental health, not illness, because part of the problem is the framing and stigma around it. The fact is, anyone is vulnerable and perhaps we see signs too often that we ignore. 

The words we chose to describe a situation will often determine whether people deny its existence or not. The portrayal of a problem, also determines how willing we are to deal with it. That is why, in increasing awareness around mental health, we must be deliberate about the implications of its coverage, and choice of words and remember that, sadness, stress, and depression are not the same thing - they also do not all mean mental illness in equal measure. 

Increasingly, we do not need specialists to tell when people show signs of weak mental wellness – in their varying degrees. The signs are often around us. The madness in methods, in the pursuit of power and positions, in the management of social affairs, and deal with issues. 

It may not be the case, that all who struggle with stress, sadness, or depression must first seem mentally deranged in an obvious way, to be helped. 

Depression, according to the good dictionary, is a medical condition in which a person feels very sad and anxious and often has physical symptoms such as being unable to sleep. It may also be a state of being very sad, without any hope. One wonders how many Ugandans go to hospital and tell the doctor, ‘I have been feeling sad for a week now’. 

Maybe the MPs do not commit suicide despite all the challenges they have listed, because they have hope - hope for winning an election petition even when the signs seem bleak, hope for another paycheck dealing with the financial crises listed, hope for a ministerial appointment or some responsibility that comes with ‘something extra’, after losing an election or petition, hope for another election year to reclaim a seat and so on. 

As for other Ugandans, there is hope in oil and gas. There might be issues now like malaria, inflation, European Parliament standing in the way of their oil, and many other things not worth recording here, but they can hang in for the oil. They will go nowhere until their oil money begins to fill their pocket. Hope for a job with that degree in the pocket for the last few years, hope for another scheme promising to give money, and hope that the pastor’s prophesy for prosperity will soon come through. 

For many Ugandans, the absence of suicide, may not be the real indicator of an absence of depression, or the absence of a medical diagnosis as a sign that all is well. Consider road rage, domestic violence, impunity, and others, to say it is just occasional sadness. 

Our watchword, to remain sane a little longer, is hope. The Bible speaks of faith, hope, and love, that the greatest is love. Maybe the times are such that, the greatest is hope. As Ugandans keep hope alive, the government needs to prioritise mental health. 

Ms Emilly Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University. [email protected]