Mental Health: A neglected issue in the COVID-19 response – My experience

As the Mental Health Awareness Week winds up, one of our programme officers, Miriam Kyomugisha, shares what she has observed in regard to mental health during COVID-19.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, people’s mental wellbeing was bound to be affected. When the news first broke in Uganda, there was general panic. I remember the day before lockdown, I was heading to work and offered a workmate a lift but I could see vivid fear in his eyes and speech since he was a public transport user. As the news of the global death scale spread there was a lot of anxiety and from the WhatsApp work group chat. Many people were scared to sleep, some said they couldn’t feel their legs. One of my family members claimed he was beginning to feel as though he had the symptoms because of following the news on different TV stations. That indicates the psychological trauma that the news of COVID-19 spread to even people who did not have mental disorders per se. The paranoia of contracting the disease spread like a wild fire.One of the popular memes that has circulated the internet during this period has been one that talks about fear, anxiety and worry killing people even before the virus.

Given the different reactions cited above about COVID -19, one cannot help but wonder about what is happening with the people suffering mental illness already.

One of the measures the Government had to put in place to curb the spread of the virus was a quarantine period which was communicated in the presidential address in April 2020. This quarantine came with restriction of movement of people, lockdown and curfew. Now, most mental disorders do not go well with isolation or being alone. One of the most popular treatments for most mental disorders is being surrounded by loved ones, being busy and basically, avoiding situations that might lead you to be depressed, as this usually escalates the illness. In this lockdown, people have been holed down in their houses, alone, leading to increased levels of depression resulting from all the loneliness.

As a result of the lockdown, there are reports of suicidal attempts caused by depression and loneliness.This is as a result of patients lacking the support and love they would otherwise receive if they had other people. An example that comes to mind is of a young woman in her early 20’s who suffers from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) after being raped several times. She attempted suicide and was rushed to Nakasero hospital.One of the causes of the attempt was depression caused by the fact that she was alone and dealing with the psychological pain. Also, for disorders like bi polar which is characterized by extreme highs and lows, it is hard for the sufferers to even reach out for a phone and call for help during the low periods and that has been challenging too. Another area in which mental health has been affected is the cancellation of group therapy sessions where most of the patients usually benefit from because as humans, we find it easier to identify and heal with people going through the same thing as we are. These have not been favored by the need for social distancing and the transport restrictions and also the fact that hospitals are concentrating on COVID-19 patients thus leaving the mental health patients hanging.

The COVID-19 restrictions have also limited access to mental health care. I know of a patient with a bipolar disorder who has significantly deteriorated with the lockdown. Her counselor who prefers to treat people in their home setting could not access her because of the transport restrictions. We tried to get her to Butabika National Mental Referral Hospital, a renowned facility that specializes in mental health but we were told they were not admitting patients because of the COVID-19 scare. We also tried a private mental facility in Najjera whose administration explained that they were not admitting for the same reason. What was most baffling was the fact that they were not willing to even first test the patient, they simply turned us away.We luckily got help from a friend who gave me contacts of psychiatrists at different hospitals including Nakasero Hospital which has a reputable psychiatric ward. When I called in to ask about admission, I was told that I would have to pay two million Uganda shillings as initial deposit before admission. Unfortunately, we could not afford it at the time. We resorted to getting some medication to contain her condition as we await the end of the lockdown.

Despite the numerous measures advanced in the COVID-19 response, mental health has not been prioritized. In the medical emergencies that the government has addressed, mental health is not mentioned anywhere but that’s not new. According to the international journal of mental health systems, mental health Services are still significantly underfunded (with only 1% of the health expenditure going to mental health), and skewed towards urban areas. Per 100,000 population, there were 1.83 beds in mental hospitals, 1.4 beds in community based psychiatric inpatient units, and 0.42 beds in forensic facilities. The total personnel working in mental health facilities were 310 (1.13 per 100,000 population). Only 0.8% of the medical doctors and 4% of the nurses had specialized in psychiatry.

Also, important to note is that with people having a lot of time on their hands and not much to do, they have taken to social media, which is one of the leading causes of depression as it promotes false impressions of people living better lives than you are. It basically leads to comparison and its no news that some people have done drastic things like suicide resulting from social media influence.

In conclusion, our society’s failure to take mental health very seriously during this period will most likely lead to increased mental health issues. There should have been publications and sensitisation on how to deal with the same as key issues during this time. Also people who help to treat mental health illnesses should have been facilitated to reach their patients. I also think a safe space for people dealing with mental health issues should have been put in place to enable easy, accessible and affordable mental health care. 

Health worker arrested for providing Post-Abortion Care out on bail

In November 2019, Mr Fredrick Kato, a senior clinical officer at Mukisa Medical Clinic received a patient who had carried out an abortion somewhere in Buikwe District. She was in critical condition. Mr Kato provided Post-Abortion Care to her and thereafter referred her to Lugazi Referral Hospital for an abdominal scan. A few days later, the patient returned to Mr. Kato’s facility for further treatment but since she had not gone for the scan as he had recommended, Mr Kato referred her to the referral hospital again.

On April 6, 2020, police officers from Lugazi Central Police Station arrested Mr Kato. The girl’s parents, who were in town when the Police made the arrest, accused Mr Kato of carrying out an abortion on the girl. Mr Kato was therefore arrested on allegations of carrying out an abortion, which is a criminal offence under the Penal Code Act. The Ugandan Constitution does not explicitly prohibit abortion. Article 22(2), which states that “[n]o person has the right to terminate the life of an unborn child except as may be authorised by law”, does not preclude access to termination of pregnancy; it simply requires a legal framework to do so.

Our Community Health Advocates at the grassroots were able to identify this case and reported it to our Litigation team for legal support. On May 11, 2020, the Legal Support Network applied for bail for Mr Kato, basing on the standards and guidelines by the Ministry of Health that permit health workers to provide Post-Abortion Care.

“The law doesn’t favour me, I made an oath as a health worker to save the life of my patient but the legal and policy environment in which we operate is not clear and it puts us in a vague state when it comes to providing services such as Post-Abortion Care,” Mr. Kato shared some of the challenges that health workers face, especially when providing maternal healthcare for women. 

He called upon the government to amend such policies that put health workers in a predicament when choosing whether to save the life of their patients or let them die in fear of being caught on the wrong side of the law.

“I am grateful to the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development for putting up functional structures of Community Health Advocates and the Legal Support Network that protect and defend the rights of health workers and people in the community at large. I also thank them for having me out of jail after one month, especially in this time of the lock down where transport is a problem; they managed to get me out, and back to my family.”

Compiled by Faith Nabunya- Communications, CEHURD.

COVID-19: The place of the right to health in national response for Uganda

Moses Mulumba, Executive Director -CEHURD

As the state and non-state actors take steps in dealing with COVID-19, I would wish to remind them of the need to urgently strike a balance between these prevention approaches and rights with collective responsibilities. While the state must take efficient intervention, which includes undertaking the right to health impact assessment of interventions, individuals should be taking responsibilities of complying with guidance from the Ministry of Health including social distancing, hand washing and taking other measures that have been identified as effective in preventing the further spread of the virus.

From a right to health perspective, it is important for the government of Uganda to ensure that prevention and treatment measures in form of supplies and commodities, such as sanitisers of sufficient quality, are available, accessible, and affordable for the most vulnerable communities including: the older persons, those under incarceration, refugees and the very poor. There is also dire need to devise strategies on how poor households, communities and hard-to-reach places without access to clean water, or those who cannot afford and / or access soap, detergents and sanitisers can utilise the prevention measure on hand washing with soap and water. Equitable access to information on COVID-19, must be availed to those that may not access it through the conventional avenues.

Community participation and solidarity are pillars that have historically been critical in controlling and managing similar outbreaks in Uganda. The effective use of the formal and informal community participation structures in our health system will ensure that communities are active and informed participants in the creation of a responsive health system. In the social isolation mechanism, identification of cases and first management of these cases starts from the family unit and the communities and as such; communities must be viewed as active participants who need to be provided with sufficient, updated and timely information including clearly defined referral systems for the management of COVID-19 cases.

In times like these, the Government’s obligation of protecting the public from third parties violating the rights of communities becomes very important. We envisage that cases of private actors seeking to make earnings out of the desperate situation on COVID-19 will be on the rise. The much-needed commodities like sanitisers, soaps, masks etc will be faked and/or counterfeited and in some cases sold on the black market much more expensively to the communities. In places where there is absence of government isolation centres, private sector facilities may be provided as an option but at a cost that is unaffordable and out of reach for many of those that are subject to quarantines. Research attempts, including clinical trials will be common and some of these may threaten the key ethical and human rights principles of research. The government needs to make full use of the policy space Uganda has in intellectual property as an LDC to enable it utilise new innovations. We therefore call upon the state to pay particular attention to the right to health implication of commercialisation of commodities and other key services in the era of COVID-19. 

We call upon the Government of Uganda to pay extra attention to vulnerabilities in the communities and those faced with the burden of being healthcare providers and carers in the times of COVID-19. While the majority of the reported cases in different regions are men, women are the care-givers which, not only puts them at a higher risk of contracting the virus, but also neglecting their other health and human rights. With social distancing and self-isolation, no alternative options are being proposed and implemented to ensure that girls and women continue to access sexual and reproductive health services. Those in prisons and police custody have particular vulnerabilities and interventions packages should be defined to reduce their risks.

We need to evaluate the extent to which information is reaching those in hard-to-reach areas such as islands, remote and inaccessible areas, pastoral communities, and settlements for refugees and internally displaced persons.

Lastly, as General Comment 14 on the Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health provides, violations of the right to health occur when the state, among other things deliberately withholds or misrepresents information vital to health protection or treatment. This can also happen when the state suspends a legislation or when it adopts laws or policies that interfere with the enjoyment of any of the components of the right to health. Given that Uganda’s legislation on public health is over 85 years old, we must make an urgent effort to review the key provisions under the Public Health Act that are central for Uganda to have effective responses for global pandemics like COVID-19. Regulatory approval for new medicines and speedy attention to developing new formulations for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 are important considerations too.

Let us all take care of ourselves, those around us and stay healthy.

The writer is the Executive Director of Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD)

A version of this article was originally published in the Daily Monitor.

Total lock down: What it means for Community Participation in the response to COVID-19

Christopher Baguma | Community participation and COVID-19

Community health was an idea mooted by world leaders in 1978 that created the Declaration of Alma-Ata, which reaffirmed access to health as a fundamental human right and identified primary health care as the key to attaining the goal of health for all. During the 30th anniversary of Alma-Ata in 2008, leaders discussed the role of primary health care in achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. This led to rejuvenated calls for use of community health workers (CHWs) as a form of community participation. 

Since the Alma-Ata declaration, successive Ugandan governments have acknowledged the relationship between health and poverty and in the 1990s, with the help of development partners, community health interventions were implemented. In 1999, Uganda’s health policy included community empowerment and mobilisation for health as key elements of the national minimum health care package and subsequently made a commitment to the Abuja Declaration of 2001 This also demonstrated the benefits of community-based interventions and opened the way for a strategy based on Village Health Teams (VHTs). The National Village Health Team (VHT) strategy and guidelines in Uganda were developed in 2000 and by 2003 country-wide roll outs of the VHT strategy had commenced. VHTs are lay people, working in a voluntary capacity, acting as a link between the formal health sector and their communities. They are given basic training on major health issues, including childhood diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia, and play a role in disease surveillance through activities such as data collection and reporting. 

In the wake of COVID-19, the Government of Uganda under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni issued guidelines initially including the closure of  all schools and places of worship for 30 days and the suspension of travel both in and out of the country with the hope that such measures will slow the spread of the disease. However, as the number of infections increased and the president announced more guidelines ranging from quarantine, restricted internal movements and a curfew. These preventive measures are certainly a good start, but they may not be enough, especially given the systemic and deep-rooted challenges facing Uganda’s public health system.

However, there is no clear mechanism from the Ministry of Health that links communities with existing health care services which is done by the Community Health Workers and Village Health teams using community-based approaches. Accessing health facilities is challenging and expensive for those living in remote and rural areas. Most of the information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is in English, which means rural communities might not have access to or might find it difficult to understand publicly available information. This raises challenges in accessing timely and relevant information as well as  health services. Prolonged periods of quarantine and movement restrictions are causing emotional unrest and anxiety, gender-based violence including sexual exploitation, interrupted access to sexual and reproductive health services, including access to family planning within the communities.  

To address all these issues, the communities must meaningfully participate in health programmes at the local level. The government should therefore engage community health workers and village health teams to increase coverage and cost-effectiveness of health services delivery in the COVID-19 period. To the CSOs, use the existing community structures like peers, champions and paralegals, among others in rural and urban areas to engage these structures to build strong grassroots coalitions that could reach out to the marginalized communities in the response to COVID-19.

Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) in the fight to reduce the spread of COVID-19 has engaged its community structures; known as Community Health Advocates (CHAs) by designing communication materials highlighting COVID-19 prevention strategies and a toll free line 0800313131 to report any health issue arising within the community that need our intervention. The CHAs work with communities to navigate the healthcare system at the local level by providing information on health, community resources and their rights to health. They work with the communities in identifying and reporting health issues and concerns to the duty bearers. These CHAs have a strong understanding of the healthcare system and resources available within the community as they provide health education to the community related to disease prevention, screenings, and health practices. They do promote community action and garner support to motivate them to seek specific healthy policies by engaging local authorities, healthcare providers and other organisations to develop a more coordinated approach in accessing health services. The coordinated approach is realised due to the existing structure which starts from the community, parish, sub-county and district level with the leadership of the district coordinator and strategic support and coordination from CEHURD secretariat. 

The writer is the Programme Manager -Knowledge Management Program at Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD)

A version of this article was originally published in the Daily Monitor.

Executive watch: CEHURD’s HR Manager

A warm welcome and lots of good wishes to CEHURD’s Human Resources Manager Ms. Florence Matovu Nakanwagi, an expert with 15 years of experience. Her specialty includes providing strategic direction, developing organisational structures, job analysis, evaluation and grading to ensure internal equity and design of reward policies.
Ms. Nakanwagi has a Masters in Human Resources Management from Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University, a Bachelor’s in Education from Makerere University, and is experienced in Information Systems Management, Guidance and Counselling, Management, Skills Improvement and Recruitment. She is also a member of the Uganda Human Resource Managers’ Association.

We welcome you and congratulate you on joining our vibrant and dynamic team. May your contribution bring fulfillment and success to you and the entire CEHURD team.