Through recent months, there has been an increase of suicide cases due to suspected mental health problems.
This gives the impression that mental health is a new thing in our communities. However, the reality is that mental health is something that we all might be affected with at some point in our lives, albeit at varying degrees.
Mental health is often defined as a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional wellbeing. On a daily basis, we are faced with situations that affect our psychological and emotional wellbeing often with some life phases being more challenging than others.
In 2017, I was fortunate to attend a mental health first aid certification course. At the time, while working with Uganda Sickle Cell Rescue Foundation, I encountered persons among our clientele who were going through emotional distress. Like most people, I was neither aware of the magnitude of the effect nor had a chance of identifying early warning signs and risk factors.
The mental health first aid course offered an avenue for learning to recognize mental health and substance use challenges. Consider that friend, workmate or family member who might be developing a mental illness: would you not want to have the ability to recognize that something is amiss and be able to intervene, offer the necessary support and direct the person to proper treatment?
In most cases, this is not the case. Those who need mental health services do not get them until it is too late. Mental health first aid teaches us how to identify, understand and respond to warning signs of mental health concerns. It answers essential questions like “what can I do? Or where can I find help?”
In Uganda, it is estimated that up to 90 per cent of the people receive no treatment for mental health illnesses. This can be argued to be due to lack of accessibility to services. However, it is mostly attributed to lack of awareness of the services. Access is further construed by cultural beliefs and stigma associated with mental illnesses.
In my family, one of my elder brothers was faced with a crisis of chronic depression and substance abuse. Some of our family members were associating the crisis to jinns (unseen spirits in the Islamic perspective).
This created a lot of tension among those of us who were recommending professional services for mental health illnesses as opposed to seeking religious/spiritual care services.
For most people, this is a very thin line. Many people feel more comfortable seeking religious spiritual care. This can be attributed to the fact that it is considered normal or ideal for most life scenarios in our cultural and community context.
The situation is different from professional mental illness cases. People have often associated seeking such services for only “mad” persons. This practice is attributed to a scenario where services are sought for only extreme cases.
However, mental illness encompasses a myriad of conditions with varying degrees of effects from mild to severe or chronic to acute. The major types include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, personality disorders, trauma and eating disorders.
The most common are anxiety and depressive disorders. This creates the need to have our communities aware of these conditions, their symptoms and how to assist those affected.
This awareness is essential in addressing the stigmas, myth and beliefs associated with mental illnesses. Starting with schools, we can have a great impact by having counsellors in addition to the traditional school nurses. Counsellors can offer an additional form of support system in a school setting to help identify students at risk.
In addition, student leaders can be trained to become mental health first aiders to bolster the support system for persons experiencing mental health illnesses. Workplaces can also train employees in mental health first aid. This is essential in ensuring productivity while saving the company resources that could be lost when employees are affected.
As a society, we need to have the necessary skills to identify early warning signs and risk factors among our loved ones, friends and workmates. We have to realize that mental health is real and all of us are at risk.
The author is a former executive director of the Uganda Sickle Cell Rescue Foundation.