Regional common good campaigner Twaweza has facilitated public discourse in Uganda on mental health challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic as the country struggles through a strict lockdown imposed last month to curb the spread of the virus.
Over 200 participants were treated to a bevy of information from leading mental health and psychosocial experts, and Health Ministry officials who gave an update on the overall effect of the pandemic on the general welfare of the population.
A panel of experts shared with the public tips on how to deal with challenging times.
Panelists included; Dr. Hafsa Luwata, Assistant commissioner Mental Health at the Ministry of Health, Elizabeth Okello, President Uganda Counseling Association, Professor Wilson Winston Muhwezi, Associate professor Behavioral Science and Mental Health at Makerere University, and Vicent Mujune, the Communications, Partnerships and Advocacy Manager at Strong Minds.
The talks were informed by Twaweza’s new study findings which indicated that almost all residents in the capital Kampala were worried about the continued spread of Covid-19, including its impact on their lives and means livelihood.
Uganda is going through a second wave of the virus, which has overstretched its health system. There was a public outcry last month that patients were being turned away from health facilities that were full to capacity.
Thus, the study revealed that 95% of the residents of Kampala, which is the epicenter of infections worried about the Covid-19 situation. The fear is attributed reasons to the high rate of death in the current wave, the high number of patients, the rapid spread, the introduction of new lockdown measures, loss of income and livelihood, among other things.
It further indicated that fewer than half the city’s residents (42%) feel personally at risk of contracting the virus. However, even fewer (36%) are confident that would quickly receive the care and treatment they need if they became sick with the Coronavirus.
Ugandans are also uncertain about their government’s ability to handle the pandemic. Two out of ten (19%) are very confident that the government can handle things, while three out of ten (32%) are not confident that the government can do so, the study said.
While opening the discussion, Twaweza Advocacy Manager Violet Alinda said the talks are meant to provide a platform to share information to the public on how to cope with the trying times.
“We really want to use this as a platform where we can share and provide information to the participants who in turn will share information broadly so that as we continue to stay at home and figure out how to live and survive in tough times, we basically have information that can help us cope with the situation,” Alinda said.
She indicated that information would play a pivotal role in guiding the public on decisions and actions to take in trying times.
“We know the uncertainties and what it creates in our wellbeing,” she added.
According to Dr. Luwata, much as mental health had previously not been given attention in the public health system, the Health Ministry has recognized the impact of the pandemic on the population and has since factored in psychosocial support in the covid response and the general healthcare.
“We have been telling the planners of epidemics and emergencies that our care as mental health experts continue a little longer. Many times, when the epidemic ends, that is the end for everyone,” she said emphasizing that the pandemic has sent a message across that there is a need for psychosocial support to the population even after the pandemic.
From the Ministry of Health observation, Dr. Luwata said the first wave was the most challenging as people struggled with uncertainty, stigma after infection, and anxiety due to the uncertainty. She urged the population to keep calm and take things lightly to avoid anxiety and depression.
Professor Muhwezi explained to participants that with the restrictions on life and livelihood, there is a likelihood that people who have suffered mental health challenges previously are likely to break down.
There are also fears that the poor and the most vulnerable are likely to break down especially those who are household heads and are not able to fend for the families, he said.
The Pandemic has further had a toll on children and teenagers who have been out of school and this has been manifested in the number of teenage pregnancies. Top of the risk population is the country’s medical workers who are at the frontlines of the fight against the unseen enemy, in a broken health system.
“Health workers themselves have challenges. It is a lot in terms of what they are supposed to do and what is expected of them … we know that they do not have everything they would require to function and deliver quality healthcare and that can be frustrating,” he noted
The President Uganda Counseling Association, Elizabeth Okello urged people to be on the lookout for signs of mental breakdown and seek counseling services immediately.
The counseling association has counselors in different communities that can offer basic assistance and can easily advise or refer people to regional hospitals in case of dire conditions, she said, adding that the association has also licensed private practitioners who can offer counseling and psychosocial support services.
Strong Minds has pioneered community psychosocial support services and it is this mode of operation the organization has employed in the covid-19 pandemic times. It has created a hotline for people to dial and an expert can be sent to them in less than 78 hours.
Mujune noted that Covid-19 is not unique to other distressful times. It has however provided a lot of key parameters that would be the basis for one to be triggered to be depressed or even anxious. He urged participants and stakeholders to look at mental health holistically because all population groups are currently grappling with a lot and are not able to cope.