Before we condemn the way the developing world regards mental illness, let’s remember that until recently people with intellectual disabilities and mental health problems were hidden away and mistreated in supposedly advanced countries. And some might argue we haven’t come all that far since Rosemary’s story began…
Rosemary was born into a wealthy family in Boston, but due to problems during childbirth she never developed to her full mental capacity. At 23 she was given a lobotomy which left her incontinent, and unable to walk or speak. She spent the rest of her life in institutions. Her mother was so ashamed of Rosemary she did not visit her for 20 years. Her father, an ambitious man, feared if people knew about Rosemary it might damage his career.
But Rosemary had an older brother who went on to be president of the United States. His sister’s tragic story inspired John Kennedy to break the taboo of silence around mental health. He was the first president to make funding and research a priority, and he forever changed public attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities and mental health problems.
If JFK were to visit modern day northern Ugandan he would recognize the fear, shame and prejudice surrounding mental health issues. Agago District, where we work, has among the highest rates of mental health disorders in the world, from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia, all of which are considered a curse from God, and contagious. The scale of this problem is partly attributable to the legacy of twenty years of war, compounded by devastating levels of poverty.
Network for Africa is helping by providing three counsellors to assist a recently appointed psychiatric nurse in Agago. In 2014 we presented the District Heath Officer with the results of our comprehensive survey of local mental health conditions. This led to the appointment of the psychiatric nurse, and a request that PCCO provide the new nurse with professional support. Our local partner, Patongo Counselling Community Outreach or PCCO, supports the nurse as well as raising community awareness among the 270,000 people living in Agago. The project is already having an impact – within three months 50 people came to the psychiatric nurse for treatment for epilepsy, 14 for depression and 3 for psychosis.
Although there are now sufficient drugs for treatment, there is still a barrier of shame, suspicion and stigma preventing people from coming forward for help. PCCO counsellors train health workers, but they also reach out to the community to challenge superstitions and encourage people to get help. They use their radio phone-in show to explain that treatment is possible and available. In this way, our partners are offering hope, helping individuals and their families to emerge from the shadows.
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