Doreen Oyella

Ms. Doreen Oyella, a Community Psychologists at Gulu Hospital Mental Unit, attends to a patient brought in the facility recently.

[Africa: Health]

GULU, Uganda—Here at Gulu Regional Referral Hospital Doreen Oyella, the Regional Coordinator of Mental Health-Uganda, Gulu branch, squats down, to try to find out the identity of the female patient who is in bad shape and who has just been brought to the Mental Health Unit of the hospital by a policeman together with another Good Samaritan.

“We found her loitering aimlessly around Gulu University (about two kilometers away from the hospital) and we thought we should bring her here since she seems to be suffering from some kind of mental illness. She could not respond to our questions nor explain herself to us. Students wanted to beat her up”, says the policeman.

The policeman then left the patient, who is in her early thirties, shortly after making that statement, leaving her to the Good Samaritan and the health workers to find solution to handle her.

Ms. Doreen then checks her small bag which the patient had with her, to find out if she was carrying her documents to identify her. Luckily, she was carrying her medical record book and it emerged that the unidentified lady is an old patient to the Mental Health Unit facility. She was receiving treatment for “Depression” and that she had been on medication for sometimes now by the time of filing this story.

Depression can be described as a normal reaction to life’s struggles, loss, or an injured self esteem. It is a feeling of intense sadness-including feeling helpless, hopeless and worthless-at least for many days to weeks and keeps you from functioning normally. This is depression. It is an illness that impacts the brain, sometimes leading to suicide tendencies.

“We called the telephone number we found with her documents and it was her father’s phone number. He told us to begin treating his daughter as he informs her mother to rush to take care of her as an in-patient at the mental health facility. He was talking from Lira town”, says Doreen.

“This patient, whom you found me helping, escaped from the unit ward without completing her treatment. Her mother did not show up” says Doreen, one week later.

According to a report released by Mental Health-Uganda, an indigenous Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), of 4th April 2010, a total of 11.5 million Ugandans suffer from disorders and the percentage is highest in Northern Uganda where insurgencies raged on for over two decades and among HIV/AIDS patients.

Sixty-three-year old Mr. Patrick told this reporter that he suffered mental illness which was diagnosed by the late Dr. Thomas Oyok who was in-charge of the Mental Health Unit of Gulu Regional Referral Hospital in 2004 as “Organic Mania”, when he lost his job unexpectedly.

“My employer accused me that I was not performing to the expectation of the company. I lost my job just like that, a job, which I loved very much without any benefit like National Social Security Fund (NSSF) savings. The company was not contributing my savings to the fund”, says Patrick tearfully, eleven years later.   

“Dr. Oyok later explained to me that “organic mania” is caused by “primary” and “secondary” problems. This was true of my case in 2004 when I lost my job. I had young children in school who needed fees, rent to pay and provide food for my large family. The problem became too much for me to shoulder and I broke down mentally.  I even ate human feces which I scooped from the drainable toilet at my office as food at the start of my “madness”. I am just recovering from the effect of that loss of income, years later”, recalls Patrick.

Patrick now wants to join any Advocacy NGO like Mental Health-Uganda so as, together, they can lobby for EEG (electroencephalogram) testing machine. This is a machine that detects electrical activity in your brain using small, flat metal. A neurologist examines the EEG recording for abnormalities in the brain wave pattern which may reflect diseases of the nervous system.

“At one time I came to the Clinical Officer who was prescribing my treatment and requested that I be subjected to a machine test since I felt I was recovering well enough to stop medication. I had never seen such a machine being used here in Gulu for testing the degree of mental illness. What he told me was shocking. He said I would need to travel to Nairobi, Kenya, for such machine test and warned that I would not be able to afford the test. From that moment onwards, I sought to join an Advocacy lobby group”, says Patrick.

This Mental Health Unit receives between 30-75 patients with all types of mental illness on daily basis and about 600 monthly, according to a report in the State owned New Vision daily newspaper of May 2014.

The report quotes the new medical officer of the unit, Dr. Canaan Katerega saying attempted suicides, which affects the age bracket of 12-35 years of age, tops the different types of mental illness.

It is very difficult to get the actual statistics of the total number of persons with mental illness for Gulu district as government officials want to keep such record close to their chests, says Mr. Jolly John Paul Nyeko, chairman of Gulu Branch of Mental Health Uganda.

“It is very difficult to get information in the hands of government officials concerning mental health. Maybe they fear that shortage of drugs in health units may not be  there if they release such information”, says Nyeko.

Mental Health Uganda was established in 1997 but opened a branch here in Gulu in 2009, as an NGO with the aim of giving psychosocial, supporting livelihood projects for peer groups, protection of the rights of persons with mental disorder, among other responsibilities

Sheffield Health & Social Care Foundation Trust, a United Kingdom’s NGO is the major partner of the Gulu branch. Together, the two organizations offer capacity building and mental health awareness training to peers (persons with mental disorder) on counseling so that the trained peers can go out in the community to train others on counseling.

They have a “Pass-a-Goat” project whereby they distributed a total of 36 she-goats to peer groups in Awach, Bobi and Ongako as income generating activity for those with mental disorder, says Ms. Doreen, a trained Community Psychologist herself.

 “It pains me to see persons with mental disorder are manipulated because of the conditions of their disability. Girls with mental health can be raped, defiled, beaten, can get lost, infected with HIV/AIDS or impregnated like this young child from Laliya. How will such children of disabled person live in the future? They may have no identity”, says Ms. Doreen.

World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized mental health disorder as a new form of disability. As a branch, Gulu intends to start up tree planting plantations in all the areas they are operating in as a project for paying fees for children of persons with disability in the next planting season in March 2016.

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