An update from Network for Africa CEO Annabel Harris on our project in northern Uganda, following her recent visit.
There has been much talk in the media this week of mental illness, following the sad suicide of comedian Robin Williams. It’s high time that depression and its tragic partner, suicide, made it onto the news agenda.
A recently bereaved father bravely took to the airwaves and spoke of his son’s suicide, in a bid to spark a debate about the illness “that no one dares to speak of”. He said the majority of suicidal callers on his watch as a Samaritan are women, yet in 2012, 76% of suicides were men. Treatment in the developed world is woefully inadequate, with cuts in mental health services in the UK resulting in a 9-month wait for psychiatric help. This is echoed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ new president who says that two-thirds of psychiatric patients get no treatment at all – it’s not just a case of long waiting lists. Meanwhile, in the US, more than 30,000 people a year take their own lives.
Transpose this to northern Uganda and imagine living through 22 years of war on your doorstep, with multiple acts of unspeakable brutality happening before your eyes, often to your loved ones. Imagine losing your home, your livelihood and spending 22 years in a refugee camp with 85,000 other people all suffering in equal measure.
Six years ago, when we started working with our project partner in Patongo, we found a community in deep trauma, where depression and suicide were rife and an integral part of daily life. Nobody talked about it, however – there was stigma and shame attached to it – and men, young and old, self-medicated with alcohol, leading to another set of problems, notably rape, domestic violence and rising HIV rates.
There is a different narrative in Patongo now. On my recent visit in July I saw a community that is well on the way to recovery. Our team of community counsellors has helped countless people learn to manage their depression and anxiety through gentle support and by sharing counselling techniques. Their radio ‘phone-in shows have alleviated the isolation experienced by people far and wide who previously thought they were alone with their depression.
People have told me they are sufficiently recovered to rediscover their agricultural heritage and start working the land again. I visited five of our community groups who have been given start-up agricultural projects and I saw their pride in, and commitment to, their collective smallholdings.
Our project partner told me that our post-war counselling work in Patongo is nearly done. What we now need is to provide all our community groups with sustainable agricultural projects, and then move on to a new area where people are still suffering.
This is not to say there isn’t still work to be done to address sexual and domestic violence and HIV, but I left convinced that tackling depression and anxiety is an essential first step to rebuilding a healthy and productive community that is recovering from war. We have now completed that first step. Thank you for your help and support in making this possible.