Mental Health: Stigma Still High Despite Strides Made in Treatment

Superstition and stigma still limit access to mental healthcare despite efforts by the government to increase the number of health facilities that treat such conditions across the country.  Several experts raised this during an event to mark World Mental Health Day held at Kisugu Health Center III in Kampala on Monday.

Dr. Hafisa Lukwata Ssentongo, the Acting Assistant Commissioner of Mental Health in the Ministry of Health said that they have resolved to engage in awareness campaigns to dispel the wrong beliefs that people with mental illness have actually been bewitched or are possessed by evil spirits.  She says that they intend to take the campaigns to schools such that the learners can know the causes of the various mental health complications and where care can be sought.

She says that this is intended to make the students change agents in the communities to reduce the stigma about mental health. Dr. Hafisa Lukwata Ssentongo noted that the government is also building the capacity of healthcare workers so that they can be able to assess and properly diagnose different mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression and offer appropriate care to their clients.

Uganda still grapples with the lack of health workers that specialize in mental health conditions with only less than fifty trained psychiatrists for a country of more than 43 million people. Most of the mental health facilities are run by lower cadre psychiatric clinical officers. As a result, a lot of clients end up being referred to the National Mental Health Referral hospital at Butabika unnecessarily, which overwhelms the facility. 

Dr. Juliet Nakku, the Executive Director of Butabika National Referral hospital, says that there has been an increasing number of admissions at the Butabika over the last two years alone with over 1100 patients admitted in one day. She says that there is a need to integrate mental health care at all levels to enable people to access treatment when they come for treatment for other illnesses such as Malaria and cough. 

The psychiatrist explains that there are risks to mental health such as disasters like landslides, wars, and infectious diseases such as COVID-19 and now Ebola which are breeding new conditions. For instance, she says as soon as the country got out of COVID-19, they started seeing lots of young children trying to commit suicide.

She further said that people are not being optimally productive because of mental health issues. 

Patrick Sambaga, the country director of Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, which treats and rehabilitates people with mental health, says the absence of awareness of mental health issues in the community is responsible for the stigmatization and violence.

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