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Mental health spike triggers Butabika hospital to train psychiatric nurses

The state minister for Higher Education, Dr John Muyingo (R) presents a certificate to one of the best-performing graduands

The state minister for Higher Education, Dr John Muyingo (R) presents a certificate to one of the best-performing graduands

With the increasing demand for mental health services, Uganda’s only psychiatric school – Butabika School of Psychiatric Nursing (BSPN) – is on course to start a dedicated degree program in psychiatric nursing to help fill the gap of qualified practitioners and offer a clear career pathway for psychiatric nurses at the certificate and diploma levels, writes YUDAYA NANGONZI.

In Uganda, studies indicate that the country is grappling with a huge burden of unattended mental health problems among children, adolescents and adults.

In a recent study commissioned by the ministry of Health, researchers from the Makerere University School of Public Health and Butabika hospital showed that one in three individuals in communities suffered a mental health problem. Most people suffer from anxiety, depression and alcohol use problems.

In schools, the researchers found that one in three children aged 11 to 17 years had emotional problems. According to the executive director of Butabika hospital, Dr Juliet Nakku, who led the research team, the findings underpin the importance of upgrading the quality of psychiatric nurses in the country.

She shared the statistics at the recent sixth graduation ceremony of BSPN in Butabika during her speech as the chairperson of the school’s governing council. She said the government needs to deliberately plan to support the school to counter the mental health burden in the country.

“The burden of mental health is high yet we want people to sustain this discipline by developing human resources. Our neighbors in Kenya have a degree in psychiatric nursing but Uganda is lagging,” Nakku said.

She added: “Several countries are learning from our mental health care services. We should take this a notch higher by training degree mental health nurses who will upgrade to become lecturers or offer specialized care in mental health.”

According to Nakku, the school has identified people in the UK who are willing to support this development but the government needs to provide scholarships for tutors and clinical mentors to upgrade to degree and master’s levels.

Psychiatric nursing is a specialized discipline that requires a set of skills that are distinct from general nursing. The lack of support to train the teachers remains a major hindrance.


At least 372 students (197 female and 175 male) were awarded certificates and diplomas in mental health. With the absence of a degree program, the graduates can only join general nursing in case they want to upgrade their studies.

Nakku said the country is losing well-grounded cadres with this arrangement yet fewer students are attracted to the profession. To make matters worse, when graduates go to communities, there are few positions to absorb them while others join midwifery or general nursing.

With a huge number of patients in need of mental care coupled with insufficient psychiatric nurses, Butabika hospital is also financially constrained to employ most psychiatric graduates.  The state minister for Higher Education, Dr John Muyingo, who presided over the graduation, pledged to support the school’s plan for a degree program.

“I will play my part to the best of my ability. In a world where mental health challenges affect millions of people, you deserve support from the government. You are the front-line responders of people’s struggles and an inspiration of hope to those in need. Your work surpasses the boundaries of traditional health care,” Muyingo said.

He urged graduates to practice with professionalism as well as embrace the challenges that lie ahead with courage and conviction. He awarded certificates to the best graduands; Sadat Yoweri, Sharon Takooba, Beatrice Naume Sabano, Gertrude Nabakooza, Hosea Kukkiriza, Victoria Nabisere Birungi, Sharifah Ssekalala, and Farouk Musoke.

The acting principal of BSPN, Harriet Kwagala, commended the government for the support thus far amidst the unending challenges of inadequate infrastructure, staffing, low capitation grants, and delayed promotion of staff.

Kwagala has been in an acting position for three and a half years without a substantive deputy principal. The school has no principal tutor, procurement officer, inventory officer, and ICT officer.

“Our infrastructure dates as far as 1954. By the time we were transferred to the current location, the rooms were originally wards for managing aggressive patients. They are small and the ventilators are too high given the nature of the patients being nursed then,” Kwagala said.

She said the school would have increased the student population but the dormitories are still few. The skills lab, a critical component in
the training, accommodates only 25 students, yet the certificate classes have many students. As of March 2024, the student enrolment stood at 412. Established in 1960 to train enrolled nurses as deemed necessary by the Health ministry then, the school started mental health training in 1968.


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