Mental Health in Post-war Northern Uganda: Introduction

 

Guest editors:

Lioba Lenhart

Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies, Gulu University, Uganda

 

Susan Reynolds Whyte

Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

 

The two-decade war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Government of Uganda (1986-2006) in the northern part of the country has taken its toll on individuals, as well as society. Tens of thousands of children and youth were abducted and recruited into the ranks of the LRA. Civilians suffered extreme forms of violence, killings, rape and mutilations. Ultimately, some ninety percent of the population of northern Uganda was forced to live in camps for Internally Displaced People (IDP). Today, after ten years of peace, the people of northern Uganda still have to cope with their difficult past.

    The significant rate of mental illness in post-war northern Uganda, which is among the highest worldwide (Businge 2008), can be attributed to the prolonged experience of war, internment, continuous poverty and lack of future prospects (Ssebunnya et al. 2009). Yet the weakened health care system does not recognise mental health as a priority (Kagolo 2012, Kigozi et al. 2010). Many people suffer fromposttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar affective disorder and schizophrenia. Substance abuse and alcoholism are widespread. The suicide rate isparticularly high among young people (cf. Deleu & Porter 2011, Okudi 2014, Owich 2015, Phamet al. 2009, Robertset al. 2008, Tumwebaze 2014, Vincket al. 2007). Although reports and figures demonstrate the desolate situation of mentally ill people in northern Uganda, the state budget for health care and services is still insufficient to finance adequate programmes (Kigozi et al. 2010).

    Society lacks knowledge and understanding of the problems of mentally ill people, whoare confronted with prejudice, stereotypes and stigmatisation every day. Many mentally ill people have become victims of abuse, neglect and exploitation. Families and relatives are overwhelmed and do not know how to cope with the tremendous physical and emotional demands. They sometimes restrain their mentally ill family members for hours, days, weeks and even months so that they can carry out their everyday work such as cultivating the fields, but also to protect the mentally ill from danger. Moreover, many neighbours react in a hostile way, because they fear the ‘weird and strange behaviours’ of the mentally ill, and even discriminate against family members who help care for them. Persistent abuse and stigmatisation in the workplace and school force mentally ill people to leave employment and education, which in turn reinforces the already high level of poverty among them (MDAC & MHU 2014a).

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