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In defence of children and adults of kyeejo

Over the past two years, Ugandan media has inevitably covered the Covid-19 crisis extensively.

Similar to the havoc it has wreaked elsewhere, the pandemic has undoubtedly resulted in a lot of pain for most Ugandans. And while much of that suffering is tangible — observable via elements and systems such as physical/corporal pain, as well as the economy and (lack of ) social interaction, the most intensive effects might be the invisible, but nonetheless, potent ones related to mental health.

In particular, numerous individuals/ families have endured the loss of loved ones. But despite the negative impact of such in- extremis suffering, one silver lining might be the potential for improvement of our empathy for one another.

After all, despite the fact that many Ugandans regularly experience social ills such as poverty and subpar healthcare, this pandemic has resulted in relatively equitable suffering for all individuals, regardless of wealth, power, influence, location, etc.

All individuals deserve our empathy. Our failure to feel empathy results in various unintended effects at the micro (individual), meso (community) and macro (national) levels, including suicide. We should rethink or consider entirely abolishing the concept of kyeejo! (naughtiness)

Rationale: the perpetuation of that concept often results in child-abuse, such as corporal punishment. Moreover, the kyeejo label prevents children and adults from seeking help for both non-clinical and clinical conditions such as depression and anxiety, or even grief. Right from childhood through old age, we are trained to suck it up and be brave, not to complain, etc.

Instead, we need to re-imagine suffering, to realize that we will all experience it at one point or another in our lives, and that it is not necessarily a bad thing. But if one feels that s/he’s suffering extremely, s/he should feel comfortable to seek help from family and friends, or professionals.

I have to admit, by the way, despite arguing against the practice, I often find myself judging those who complain or express their suffering. But two wrongs don’t make a right.

In fact, my arguments I have been the result of a long journey of personal experience, beginning from my childhood in Uganda through my adulthood in the USA. In childhood, I was a loner and was bullied constantly and accused of having kyeejo by classmates, and even various family-members, etc.

As a teenager, I documented for the first time, via my journal entries, my intense experience of productive and creative high tides and depressive low tides, a trend that has continued into my adulthood.

For the record, with such experiences, I have managed to survive, and even thrive. For instance, I earned a Ph.D, partly through harnessing the aforementioned creative/productive high tides (writing a dissertation can be a breeze while going through those!).

And in one way or another, for better or worse, various circumstances have aligned, slowly nudging me toward the cause of mental- health advocacy.

I have thus resolved to use my experiences to try to help prevent future suffering for others. How should the people and leaders of Uganda productively deal with issues of mental health and illness? First and foremost, by doing something difficult: opening up.

Just as the musician Philly Lutaaya helped steer the nation toward transparency and increased awareness of the HIV/Aids scourge, individuals and leaders should strive to productively discuss their mental health struggles. In this regard, Robert Kabushenga’s YouTube video about his father is commendable and exemplary.

It should not be considered shameful to have a schizophrenic or bipolar episode, nor should it be considered shameful to feel depressed or anxious. On the contrary, it is human and normal. We are all built differently mentally, and we each cope differently with stress. Anyone facing mental health issues should feel free to seek help from family and friends, or professionals.

Secondly, let us all strive to educate ourselves better in regard to this issue. In this regard, one of the most important facts is that mental health conditions can be both problematic and not severe enough to require clinical treatment. But regardless of the specific remedy, we shouldn’t judge or misunderstand these conditions.

Thirdly, we should all play our part in rectifying this issue. For instance, take better care of yourself and your loved ones, try to be helpful, but again, desist from ignorance or misjudgment.

We should utilize a multi-pronged approach to this issue. Educators have a role to play, as do families, clinicians, etc. But the solutions should be evidence-based. No, your friend, brother, wife is not psychotic because of witchcraft. That person is afflicted with a disease—similar to diabetes, albeit a disease of the mind.

Overall, we all have the power to either perpetuate vicious, or virtuous cycles with our belief-systems and day-to-day actions in regard to mental health. Let us choose wisely.

The author is a communication and social-science researcher and mental-health advocate, based in the USA.

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