Erasing mental health stigma – one person at a time
Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2019/06/erasing-mental-health-stigma-one-person-at-a-time/
Note: This is the first of a two-part series focusing on mental illness in Uganda. Part I demonstrates how Uganda Christian University (UCU) deals with the problem. Part II will provide an example of a program making a difference outside of the UCU campuses.
By Patty Huston-Holm
For Irene Ojiambo, the desire to be a counselor came before she could speak the word. As a little girl, she saw people come into her house, crying and looking for her father, a priest. Instead, the distressed men and women got her mother who had them laughing on the way out. That, the young Irene knew, was the job she wanted.
For Joseph Musaalo, the call to counseling was progressive. The students he taught and the steady flow of needy children that his wife, Sarah, brought home found him increasingly wanting to do more. It was an 11-year-old female HIV/AIDS victim who showed up at his job with Compassion International who propelled him to action.
“We were shedding tears together,” Joseph recalled of that day and the pain that he and the girl both felt about the naming-calling she endured as well, for him, feelings of inadequacy to help. “I knew I didn’t want to feel that helpless again.”
So it was that Irene, who aspired to “make people laugh” and Joseph, who sought to stop the tears, became counselors. Their offices slope down among the trees between the Uganda Christian University (UCU) medical building and the Noll classrooms on the Mukono/main campus. UCU has counselors at all five of its locations.
The first UCU counseling office opened in 2005 – eight years after the university was founded. A pastor was hired to do the job. In 2008, Joseph came on board, seeing UCU students and staff in a small room that was part of the Allan Galpin Medical Center.
“I immediately started making a case for locating the counselor services in a place that would provide more respect,” Joseph, now head of UCU counseling services, said. “There was – still is – a stigma about people seeking help for emotional problems. Some people say they are ‘mad’.”
Today, Irene, who came to UCU four years ago, and Joseph, at UCU more than a decade, offer counseling services in a building that was once a family home. They each see about five people a day or 50 total a week – usually by appointment and most often young females. They hold large meetings in a structure that used to house a resident’s car. A white tent for the twice-a-year para-counseling workshops is nearby.
“Counseling is about empowerment and not advice,” according to Joseph, known as “Uncle Joe” for his regular column in the university’s student newspaper, The Standard. “We listen, give coping solutions and empower people to make decisions, hopefully beyond a one-time crisis.”
Friends and family members give advice that may or may not be the best and could resolve a short-term problem related to bullying, abuse, diet, study habits, drugs and money. Counselors strive to enable individuals to not only resolve a single issue but to have to have the tools to avoid re-occurrence.
Mental health is less understood in developing countries like Uganda, according to Joseph. Butabika Hospital, founded in 1955 in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, is the mental health national referral hospital for the entire country’s population of more than 40 million. One source notes that 98% of Ugandans with mental health issues have no place to receive services.
The UCU counselors are doing their best to fill that void for students and staff. The overriding issues of fear, anxiety, self esteem and depression are connected to such conditions as drug and alcohol use and abuse, HIV/AIDS and financial deficiency and pressure toward extra-marital and pre-marital sex and academic cheating.
The counselors, along with Richard Bwire, their administrative assistant, know the clients they see barely touch the surface of the campus need. In addition to the negative stigma with asking for help is the requirement that students and staff come to the counselors and not the other way around.
“They have to come to us,” Joseph said. “We know there are many out there who feel isolated with a problem, but they need to take the first step and ask for help.”
One way to help meet the need that is too large for counselors is staff and student training. Since 2008, there have been 2,073 students and 396 faculty and staff receiving UCU para-counseling training to help themselves and others around them. Topics include self-awareness, and anger, stress and financial management as well as basic information about frequent mental and physical topics that a trained counselor addresses. There are some conditions – such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder common to those coming from war-torn areas – that only a certified counselor should handle.
“We are a Christian university and we are Christians, but we always follow the path of the client first; we unwrap the problem,” Irene said. “Some people we see have been hurt by people professing to be Christians.”
One client, one workshop at a time, Uganda’s trained counselors “must change the way of thinking that somehow mental illnesses are less serious than physical ones,” according to Joseph. “And we need to realize that we all have some level and some moments of mental incapacity, but when they become large, we need help.”
To learn more about the UCU, go to http://ucu.ac.ug/. To support UCU, go to www.ugandapartners.org and click on the “donate” button. or contact UCU Partners Executive Director, Mark Bartels, at firstname.lastname@example.org.