Mental Health Helplines to Curb Covid-19 Induced Violence in Acholi

Bt Willy Choowo

In response to the increasing cases of violence emanating from covid-19 lockdown, Humanity for All Foundation Uganda (HAF-Uganda) has launched the Mental Health and Psycho-Support (MHPSS) helplines to combat the impact of covid-19 lockdown on mental health and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) issues among communities in Acholi sub-region.

Odong Kennedy, a psychiatric nurse and a program manager of HAF-Uganda said during the launch of the MHPSS call helplines that the initiative follows the increasing incidences of mental health as manifested in suicide and SGBV issues during covid-19 lockdown. HAF Uganda has been implementing community and school-based mental health and psycho-social support service programmes in Gulu district.

‘Since movement of people is restricted, the MHPSS call helplines will help people who are in need of psycho-social support especially those who are suffering from depression, stress and other pyscho-social issues as a result of the lockdown’, Odong said.

According to a police report on Aswa region (8 districts of Acholi), there are 1350 cases of domestic violence recorded within the period of the lockdown and there are 35 suicides. The report further reveals that land wangles, domestic violence and mob justice are on an unprecedented rise since the lockdown was imposed.

Uganda police annual report of 2018 puts Aswa region with the highest number of cases of death as result of domestic violence with 55 case out of 362 incidences and Amuru recorded the highest of deaths resulting from domestic violence at 16. At a national level, the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development reported that between 30th march and 28th April 2020, 3, 280 cases of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) were reported to police. Economic frustration and financial pressure were attributed for this worrisome trend. 

The most pressing concerns that need urgent attention include child protection, stress among both young and older persons who need emotional support in managing anxiety, anger outbursts and hunger; the leading causes of the rampant cases of domestic violence and death in the sub region. The sub region has an estimated population of 1.2 million people.

Odongo assured the community that The MHPSS call helplines are free of charge. ‘those seeking psycho-social and other referral services can either beep or call and they shall be attended to by a team of social workers who will provide the counseling or referral services accordingly.

Odong says that those in quarantine also need emotional and psycho-social support to cope with the distress imposed by isolation those who have already recovered are still in dire need further psycho-social support to recover from the stigma from the community.

The most daunting mental health challenge that MHPSS call helplines shall address include the suicidal ideation; a very rampant menace in Acholi sub-region. From December 2019 the sub-region registered 24 deaths as result of suicide and 14 attempted suicides.

There are an estimated 800,000 suicides per year globally out of approximately 16,000,000 suicide attempts. In Acholi sub-region on average one person dies as a result of suicide. since the lockdown was imposed 6 people have so far committed suicide mainly as a result of domestic wrangles.

Mental health experts are also worried that the lockdown has physically trapped many people with mental illness in places so distant that they cannot even access treatment at Gulu Mental Health Clinic at Gulu regional Referral hospital-this might cause mental relapse.

Odong says that even after discharge these people need urgent help. “They are prone to relapse as the mental condition may reoccur. So we actually want to prevent relapses of people who have been on mental health care. During a period like this (covid-19 pandemic) there are many people who are battling anxiety that subjecting them to untold stress. Pro-active psycho-social interventions could significantly reduce on the new mental health cases”.

They also argue that the lockdown shall make many people suffer from trauma as result of stress, depression, hunger, anxiety, anger outburst, and substance of abuse disorders such as excessive consumption of Alcohol, pain medication or illegal drugs which can lead to physical, social and emotional harm.

Dr. Jean Maley, a clinical psychologist and also the founder of Generation in Action-a mental health organization that addresses trauma healing in East Africa, says virtually every Ugandan is traumatized with the lockdown issues which has exacerbated Gender Based Violence (GBV) as many men have been rendered unable to provide for their families as they used to.

“conjugal rights have also become a big area of contention and when couples pull ropes over it (conjugal rights) it signals a greater underlying problem within the household. men are complaining that when they touch their wives, they say ‘leave me’. This situation always deteriorates into verbal exchange and at worst, physical confrontation”, adds the trauma healing expert.

Derrick Kiiza of Mental Health Uganda urges government to invest more in psycho-social support when dealing with chronic health problems.

“The government has not done that extensively facilitated the provision of mental health services. This is not only insufficient for people who are in quarantine but it is completely non-existent for people who are not necessarily in quarantine.  People who have been locked down in their homes are grappling with anxiety and depression aggravated by the depressive information about the surging infections that they receive everyday”, Kizza adds.

According to the latest reports from Johns Hopkins University, Avenir Health and the Victoria University in Australia, cites stay-at-home orders and movement restrictions imposed in countries across the world as the largest contributor to the increase in domestic violence cases. The reports further presages that if the lockdown persist there will be a corresponding spiral in homicide.

Projections show that violence increased by 20% during the lockdown and that there would be an additional 15 million cases of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in 2020 for an average lockdown of 3 months, 31, 45 and 61million cases for an average lockdown period of 6 months, 9 months and 1 year respectively.

The MHPSS call helplines shall provide instant online counseling or referral for victims of violence to relevant organizations or people for support services. 

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