Institutions must develop capacity to detect and offer mental health support

The writer, Mr Jimmy Odoki

The recent attempt by the state to have Makerere University researcher Dr Stella Nyanzi subjected to a psychiatric assessment has helped put in the public domain the less discussed subject of mental.

Although an important part of our overall health, mental health in Uganda does not get sufficient attention in the public domain to generate debate, interest policy makers and the media, among others, despite indicators that it is becoming a serious public health issue.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that one in four adults will experience mental health difficulties in their life.  It is a startling statistic that should by now have caught the attention of the Ugandan public. Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case. For example only about one percent of the ministry of health budget is allocated to mental health.

There is need for increased budgetary allocation for mental health in Uganda to be commensurate with the emerging trends on mental health. In addition, institutions such as universities, secondary, primary schools and work places must develop capacity to detect and offer initial support to persons experiencing mental health challenges.  There should also be increased public information on mental health to address stereotypes and stigma by improving the public’s literacy about mental health.

I am passionate about the state of mental health in Uganda partly because I have an experience in mental health and would therefore like to use my experience to benefit others.

Many years ago, as an undergraduate student at Keele University in the United Kingdom, I got a letter asking me to attend a meeting of the disciplinary committee. This was during my second year of a dual honours degree in Astrophysics and Computer Science.  I did not know why I was being summoned for the meeting where I was given tough conditions to meet if I were to continue being a student.  I was told failure to meet the conditions would lead to my expulsion. And indeed I was expelled consequently leading to the loss of my shared Commonwealth and Department for International Development scholarship. The accusation against me was that I had made threats to university staff.

My expulsion from the University set off serious depression. I did not know at the time that the condition I faced was depression. I contemplated many things had it not been for the support offered to me by the University Anglican Chaplain Rev. Catherine Lack who was generous to take me to her home for counselling and general preparation to leave Keele University. I owe her a lot.

My experience as a mental service user and advocate is the basis for my call for institutions to develop capacity to detect and offer support to persons facing mental health challenges. This will enable such persons to keep in school to acquire much needed skills or keep to keep productive at work to get the much needed money for medication and counselling.

Without going into the merits and demerits of the legal argument by state lawyers for Dr Stella Nyanzi to be subjected to a psychiatric test, I would like to state that it provided an opportunity to shine the light on stigma against persons with mental health challenges as well as those suspected to have challenges. The limelight should be used to address real challenges around the subject of mental health like how millions of Ugandans without access to the most basic of mental health services can have one and how to address the widespread stigma against them. This will positively contribute to the overall wellbeing of an important segment of Ugandans who like other Ugandans enjoy the same rights under the law and who should be treated with dignitary.

Mr Jimmy Odoki is a mental health activist