Mental health challenges impeding economic growth

By Denis Jjuuko

The death allegedly by suicide of a Ugandan digital marketer last week created some buzz about mental health at least on social media that probably not seen before. There is need to note that not all deaths by suicide are a result of mental health challenges. The cause of the alleged death by suicide by the marketer may not necessarily be attributed to mental health.

However, it gives Ugandans another starting point to work on issues that affect their mental health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 700,000 people who die due to suicide every year. Suicide, a WHO report notes, is the fourth leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds globally. Over 77% of these deaths occur in lower- and middle-income countries like Uganda.

Some statistics show that Uganda’s suicide rate stands at 15% per 100,000 people, which is rather high. In refugee settlement areas, for example, 60 people died by suicide in 2022 prompting organizations like AVSI Foundation to launch programs like Game Connect, a sport for mental health project. The Nnaabagereka through the Nnaabagereka Fund has also initiated a program on mental health and so is the Rotary Club of Kampala Naalya, where I have previously served as president. Such efforts must be supported.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to mental health is the stigma that is associated with it. Many people suffer silently and cannot talk about it prompting delays in seeking professional help. Many people will not even tell you that they have a patient in Butabika Hospital due to stigma. The same people have no problem informing anyone who don’t even care that they have a patient in another hospital.

Initiatives that are working on mental health issues must create as much awareness as possible while trying to curb the causes of mental health challenges including the rampant drug and alcohol abuse.

If you go to construction sites today, many young people working as porters for example claim that they get their “fuel” from alcohol so they have bottles of gin in their pockets from which they occasionally drink before pushing another around of materials on a wheelbarrow. If you get stuck by the roadside, the guy who will come to help you change a tire will most likely be half drunk. If you see a boda boda guy zigzagging on the road or as recklessness as they come, he is most likely imbibing on some cheap gin.

Of course, alcohol and drug abuses are not only restricted to the informal sector. Many people working in the formal sector suffer from it. But they also suffer from work related depression and stresses. The obsession with quarterly performances can create a lot of pressure on people.

Businesses must look at mental health as one of the impediments of growth. Globally, it is estimated that mental health will cost economies USD2.5 trillion annually by 2030. Those are actually the conservative estimates. Work related stress and depression is also said to cause at least 50% of all illnesses suffered by workers.

Businesses and governments must do more to encourage mental wellbeing and resilience. Games that make people relax and focus could help. Having enough sleep is another. Regular mandatory physical exercise could be another.

In poor economies like Uganda, many of the people who are lucky to have a job are paid per a day worked probably following the Biblical directive that those who won’t work won’t eat. Such people won’t take leave to deflect from work. It means going hungry. There is need to find solutions for such workers so that they can take days off once in a while and connect with their loved ones and reenergize.

Several talks on mental health at workplaces could help. A notable speaker on the subject can help people cope with the issues that affect them and find answers to some of the questions that constantly linger in their minds.

Of course, many young people have no jobs to start with and financial induced stress and depression is real. The government must, therefore, prioritize finding sustainable jobs for people.

Due to lack of jobs and opportunities, many Ugandans have become negative. Check out their social media posts. To many such people, there is nothing good that is happening so they spend half their time lambasting anyone they think is responsible for their predicament. The negativity on sometimes issues they should actually be positive about increases their stress and poor mental health wellbeing. Yet gratitude leads to mental health resilience.

Government must also increase the number of psychiatrists in Uganda. Currently, there are approximately a mere 53 of them, meaning about one for every million people. Increased sponsorship of students interested in that field at medical schools could help bridge the gap.

The writer is a communication and visibility consultant.

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