SEATTLE, Washington — Mental Health Uganda is a community-based nonprofit organization that offers local mental health support in Uganda. The Gulu chapter is one of the most impactful chapters of the national organization, using a combination of peer support, awareness and advocacy campaigns and “livelihood activities” to improve mental health while also increasing availability to care and support in Uganda.
Mental Health Care in Uganda
According to a 2006 report by the World Health Organization, there is only one National Mental Hospital in the country, 27 “community-based psychiatric inpatient units” and one treatment facility, all of which had less than two beds available per every 100,000 citizens. Moreover, there are no community residential facilities in Uganda.
Because of high disease infection and death rates, the Ugandan government typically prioritizes most of its healthcare budget on preventable diseases. As a result, Uganda only spends 0.7% of its healthcare budget on mental health.
In 2009, 237,709 Ugandans were diagnosed with some form of mental illness. By 2011, that number increased to 315,731. Furthermore, Uganda has less than 40 psychiatrists in the entire country. The majority of psychiatrists are also located in the capital city, Kampala, despite over 80% of the population residing in rural areas.
Mental Health Uganda: The Gulu Chapter
The Gulu chapter uses “livelihood activities” as a type of therapeutic treatment where chapter members (“service users”) have an opportunity to create something and ultimately achieve a positive sense of purpose every day. “Livelihood activities are designed to help break the cycle of poverty and mental illness, subsidize the cost of treatment, bring service users a sense of purpose in their daily lives and combat stigma by demonstrating to families and communities that they have something valuable to contribute,” the organization states in its website platform.
Some of these activities include candle-making, tree planting and liquid soap making. In addition to providing an outlet where individuals can find daily motivation, these activities can also bring monetary and non-monetary benefits back into the local economy. For example, candle and liquid soap productions began at the Gulu Regional Referral Hospital in 2013. Members have been able to generate a steady income while selling the products, and the hospital receives a reliable liquid soap supply that boosts the hygiene standards of its services.
The organization also offers service users the option to contribute to a local, shared savings and lending account. Service users are encouraged to add whatever they can to the savings pool whenever they choose. Individuals who need short-term financial assistance can then take a loan out of the savings pool that is repaid with interest. At the end of each year, service users get their savings back, plus the interest accumulated from any short-term loans during the year. This savings and lending scheme allows individuals to experience local, trustworthy banking while learning to manage their independent finances.
The Gulu Sheffield Mental Health Partnership
The United Kingdom’s Department of Health has International Health Links between its National Health Service (NHS) and healthcare services in countries across the globe. One of its International Health Links is the Gulu Sheffield Mental Health Partnership between the Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust (SHSC) in the U.K. and the Gulu Regional Referral Hospital (GRRH) in Uganda.
“Global mental health is an interdisciplinary field which draws its primary inspiration from global health, where the main goal is equity in health outcomes, both within and between populations,” Vikram Patel, professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in a statement on the Partnership’s website. “The principles of global mental health are, therefore, as applicable in the developed world as in the developing world.”
The NHS chose a partnership in Northern Uganda to aid the region’s long recovery from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) terror campaign under Joseph Kony. Mental health support in Uganda is not a current national priority due to cultural stigma and a lack of resources. However, the Gulu Sheffield Mental Health Partnership is working to share the importance of mental health acknowledgment and support, particularly for survivors of the LRA’s campaign.
The Partnership created an occupational therapy service in the Mental Health Ward of the GRRH that offers yoga as a form of mental health support. Additionally, the partnership provides Mental Health Awareness training to Mental Health Uganda volunteers in Gulu. After receiving this training, volunteers can train citizens in the wider Gulu community, as well as provide training to local churches. This process ultimately helps raise mental health awareness and reduce the stigma around mental health support in Uganda.
The Future of Mental Health Support in Uganda
Mental Health Uganda, Gulu, is currently developing a child support fund. This will give service users a chance to pay for their children’s school fees, which will “bring hope and stop the intergenerational transmission of poverty,” according to their website. Additionally, the chapter is working toward building a “Model Mental Health House” community center where service users and community members can join together in a peaceful setting. Moreover, “community-based rehabilitation” is one of the chapter’s main priorities for supporting the mental health of those affected by the LRA campaign.
Mental Health Uganda continues to work with communities across the country, and in partnership with several nations and governments, to advocate for and provide mental health support in Uganda. Their work has shown that bottom-up, grassroots advocacy is the most impactful way to raise mental health awareness among Uganda communities.