What does the future hold for children, parents, and leaders alike? During this worldwide lockdown, in this COVID-19 era, it all seems so uncertain. Many are left in a state of anxiety. Many are walking down the path of depression. The questions that people seek answers to are those that address the basic needs of life. Parents wonder to themselves, “What will my family eat?” Children and students, never anticipating that they would have to take a dead year, wonder if life has stopped. “What happens to my future?” they ponder in deep thought. Who has the answers to these questions — questions that can cause sleepless nights? Therefore, for the sake of the past, the present, and the future, we need to talk about mental health.
After completing three sessions on Project Girls for Girls (G4G), taking the lessons learned from Courageous Leadership and The Art of Communication, we got together as a group to discuss the issues surrounding mental health, and the role we as students of Makerere University College of Health Sciences play in keeping the public informed and educated about mental health. Rachel Ndyabawe and Angel Lisa Nansubuga (who are on track to join the next Makerere University College of Health Sciences G4G cohort) went on ahead to formally create the project and together the team purposed to take action in the month of May, the Mental Health Awareness Month. We felt that we needed to let people know that it is ok to talk about issues surrounding mental health. For various reasons, mental health discussions are not commonplace in African societies. Many people struggle in silence, unable to name their struggles, or too afraid of the stigma that might come with acknowledgement of their challenges. One can only imagine the heightened nature of the problem as people continue to be confined indoors, unable to escape from themselves and their struggles. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one person dies every 40 seconds from suicide. In Uganda, the suicide mortality rate is 9.9 per 100,000 population.
Why is mental health so important to us as medical students and future doctors, nurses and pharmacists? A couple of months back a fellow student had committed suicide after failing to cope with all the pressures that came with academics, work, and other demanding financial obligations. It was a heartbreaking time for us all, and from that moment we made it our duty to speak up about mental health and its challenges. Given the current situation with this COVID-19 era, we decided to act to let others know that they were not alone in their struggles, and that help was available if they sought it.
Therefore, we formed teams and started the Mental Health Awareness Month campaign. We made posters and short videos which addressed mental health and its challenges and leveraged the power of social media. These videos reached the public through direct messaging, social media statuses, Facebook posts, Twitter, and Instagram. Our goal was to reach out to any and all who might have been struggling but did not know how or where to seek help. We chose different messages which we hoped would encourage and let the public, our friends and colleagues know that it’s okay to not be okay. Healing is a process. There is hope. Even in the darkest night, the sun will still rise in the morning. We wanted them to know that we were there to listen and to know that because we are medical students, we are in a position to connect them to the required professional help when it is needed.
The May Mental Health Awareness Month campaign was just the beginning for us. During this period when campus is closed, we have decided to take that which we have been taught in the classroom and turn it around into a language that the public can understand, so that they are aware of their mental health status and wellbeing. We encourage our colleagues from other universities, as well as the leadership in both public and private sectors to join us in our campaigns to reach out to our fellow Ugandans. Also, during this time, it is important that we reach out to our friends and check on them. We need to create a safe space for them to open up about their struggles and battles; not just during this period of the pandemic, but beyond it.
The pandemic will end sooner or later, but the challenges that life throws at us each day are here to stay. So, let us arm ourselves well enough to live healthy, hopeful lives.
Stay Healthy Friends!