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Grieving mum’s heartfelt plea: Listen to your children before it’s too late

Butabika national referral mental hospital

Butabika national referral mental hospital

Listen to your children before they stop speaking, is the advice one grieving mother gives parents, after she learnt the hardest way imaginable.

The horror that three weeks ago enveloped this mother’s soul in Nakabugo Bbira, Wakiso district, when she found her son dead by hanging in his bedroom, will possibly live with her to her dying day.

On a Tuesday morning, this mother, who requested anonymity because of the stigma that still comes with suicide and mental health in Uganda, went into her son’s bedroom to call him for breakfast since it was already past the breakfast hour and he was not emerging from his room.

What she saw upon entering the room was the worst nightmare possible for any parent. Her child had tied a rope to a metallic rod in the room, and hanged himself!

The mother told The Observer that her 17-year-old son had been looking depressed since he had returned from school – one of the prestigious private boarding high schools in Uganda. As the cutthroat competition for high grades continues among schools to unhealthy proportions, the teenager had just been demoted to the school’s other campus, where children with ‘mediocre’ grades were sent in order to not tarnish the main campus’ rankings.

The boy had reportedly told his mother that he did not want to study sciences at A-level, but his father had insisted, saying sciences were the only subjects he was willing to spend his money on. The boy then sunk into a month of sadness and emptiness; he had no friends at the new campus, and at home he was not allowed to leave the compound – he one time asked to go and watch a football match at a neighbouring pitch and his father told him to climb on to the roof and watch from there.

A few weeks later, he took his own life. This mother mourns her baby, who was brilliant in class, saying his poor performance only started when he joined A-level with a science combination that was forced upon him by an overzealous dad.

DEPRESSION IS REAL

Parents from a ‘shut up’ and ‘suck it up’ generation where complaints of sadness or depression were often rubbished or ignored, may not see the signs of depression in their own children today, yet depression is on a rise, according to mental health experts.

A 2022 study by Mark Mohan Kaggwa et al, published in the National Library of Medicine, concluded that one in three individuals in Uganda has depression, although refugee populations were disproportionately affected.

Health practitioners as well as studies also say Covid-19, poverty, bullying, drugs and alcohol abuse, among others, have exacerbated the problem; however, like most mental health problems, depression is often ignored or even blamed on the victim, until it is too late.

Mental health patients
Mental health patients

Not so long ago, a young girl from a prestigious primary school in Kampala took her own life and stated in a suicide note she left for her best friend that she was tired of living. That her parents think they give her everything she needs, but she did not need anything other than their attention and affection. She had strangled herself after attempting to slit her wrists.

Her body was found with a few cuts on the wrists as it hung by her bedroom window. The mother said her daughter was a hot-tempered ‘daddy’s girl’; reprimanding her for something she did would make her sulk for a whole week.

The evening before she was found dead, her mother had asked her to cook groundnut paste for supper, which she did not do and like any mother would do, she reprimanded her daughter on her bad behaviour and forced her to cook the sauce. The girl then placed the groundnuts paste on the stove and left the sauce to burn to a point where smoke was coming off the saucepan.

When she was reprimanded about her carelessness, the girl threw a tantrum, stormed off to her bedroom and locked herself inside. When she had not left the room the following day by 1 pm, the concerned mother called her husband, who came home after work and broke the door down, only to find his daughter lifeless at the window.

In a similar case, police in Mpigi recorded a case of suicide in 2022, when 11-year-old Kasule Arafat hanged himself from a mango tree 250m from his school. A P.4 pupil committing suicide!

It begs the questions; are parents too busy to talk to their children? Are children’s skins growing thinner by the generation?

Penninah Nantongo, 78, a mother of seven and grandmother of 10, says: “In the past generations the things that would drive a child to commit suicide would be aggravated rape or child abuse; this generation is just too soft. They want to copy the white person but fail to copy their whole system. If you have decided to raise your child like the whites do, then always treat them like the whites treat theirs; not sometimes African, sometimes white.”

“When we were being raised, our parents’ word was the law; when they said, do this, you would, not in fear but out of respect and knowing your role as the child in the home. But with this generation, a child can talk back in a very rude and unmannered way. I am not saying that the children should not talk back to their parents but how are they talking back? With what tone? Is it disrespectful?”

Nantongo believes children today are too exposed and have access to the whole globe through television, phones and internet, a good and bad thing. They see how other families treat each other and they long for that kind of bond with their own family.

As parents expose their children to the excesses of the developed world but continue to be clueless on how to do an emotional follow-up of that exposure because it is outside their own cultural capabilities, generations of confused, directionless, yet entitled Ugandans are emerging and Nantongo is not sure parents and the country are equipped to handle that.

Leona Buhenzire, a mental health specialist at Quick Wellness Clinic Bugolobi, told The Observer: “I can’t really know what the problem is, unless I deal with them directly, but off speculation and experience, the reason these young adults resort to such ends is majorly depression.”

She said depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, personality disorders and schizophrenia, among others, can all exacerbate suicidal thoughts and actions. Buhenzire said exposure to suicide – many young people know someone who has committed suicide – can lead to copycat behaviour, and it does not help that there is increased access to means of suicide, such as firearms, high-rise buildings and medication, which was not the case in the past.

However, she said, “Family history of suicide or mental illness can indicate a genetic predisposition. Also, neurobiological factors such as imbalances in neurotransmitters, like serotonin, are linked to suicidal behaviour.”

It is imperative that guardians pay attention and talk about bullying, or how their children are adjusting to issues including divorce, changes in school or home address, etc, because it is not business as usual. According to Buhenzire, even chronic illness and pain can lead to despair, just like a history of abuse, especially in childhood, can increase long-term risk.

In one family, an epileptic teenager tried to kill herself several times by putting herself in the most dangerous positions – she once carried a pot of boiling beans off the stove – whenever she suspected the onset of an epileptic episode. It was not until her parents sought mental health help for her that she stopped placing herself in the most dangerous places just before a fit.

Buhenzire said, how the person’s feelings are accepted or denied in society or by one’s family can easily bring happiness or depression, respectively.

“Most Africans do not see depression as an issue; in fact, they do not consider mental health [an issue].”

And therein lies the biggest problem and challenge to the government when planning for the population.

ashleymwesigye@gmail.com

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