By Kwame Ismail Nkurunziza
If it was not for COVID-19 pandemic chances are you would probably never have seen this story.
Why? Because early this year I had a plan of doing something entirely different today on World Mental health.
You see, 3 years ago after 5 years of learning I had signs of depression, I was diagnosed with deep depression by Prof Ssegane Musisi, of Nakasero hospital. After confirming what I already knew, I started studying creative writing.
Fast forward I opened up about diagnosis and the therapy sessions to my writing tutor who encouraged me to write a book to inform and educate the public about depression and to help me heal from years of trauma.
Today, in commemoration of the World Health Mental Day, I was supposed to launch my memoir about growing up with depression.
When the COVID-19 pandemic messed up my plan I promised myself that I will find another way of destigmatizing mental illness on this day.
Before 2012 July, like most people with undiagnosed with mental illness, I could not understand why I would sometimes experience unexplained sadness, be emotionally and physically exhausted early in the morning before doing anything or feel empty all the sudden.
Things changed in 2012 in July when I came across a Daily Monitor story about Jimmy Odoki.
In that story Odoki, an Alumni of Kelle University in the United Kingdom, who was diagnosed with bipolar in 2006 briefly chronicled his struggle with bipolar and after reading his story I could see I ticked a few boxes.
Today I know Odoki, the coordinator of Heartsounds Gulu as not just a funny Facebook friend in real life but a committed mental health advocate I can rely on mental health related information.
Mention any one in this country who is committed to educating the public about mental health and chances are he has interacted with them. Odoki is currently writing a book about his experience.
However, apart from him, there are other mental health activists and experts who are helping many Ugandans in need of physical, psychological and spiritual support especially during this COVID-19 pandemic.
The list is long but some of the notable ones include;
‘Dr’ Joseph Atukunda Kahigiriza
He is the founder and President of Heartsounds Uganda. He has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and is a pioneer mental health champion especially in the area of Peer Support.
He led Heartsounds Uganda to partner with the Butabika East London Link to train Peer Support Workers in Uganda.
Atukunda worked with a number of organizations before focusing on mental health advocacy. He is an accountant by profession and went to King’s College Budo and Nkumba University. He is married and has family. He is passionate Karaoke in his free time. His former classmates at Budo have been very supportive to Heartsounds Uganda
Wilbroad K Mandy
He works with Mental Health Uganda and has a lived experience of depression. Mandy mainly focuses on Suicide Prevention in Rukungiri and Mbarara in Western Uganda.
He has talked about his mental health challenges on television and radio. He has shared his experience at the Heart to Heart monthly meeting at the Relate Counseling in Ntinda, organised every last Friday of the month by MyStory initiative, run by Angela Nsimbi who is a journalist as well as a Mental Health Advocate.
He is 35 years old and has a vivid experience of mental illness. He worked with Heartsounds Uganda and is a Peer Support Worker. He then went on to found the Slum Festival to help the youth in slums explore their talents. Currently he is the Managing Director of Bagada Fest in Kirombe.
He believes in using art and entertainment to help fight stigma in mental health. He has a family that provided him the much needed support when things are difficult.
JJ Paul Nyeko
He is the team leader at Mental Health Uganda, Gulu branch. On recovering from an episode of depression, Paul focused on helping other people with mental health challenges.
Nyeko is helping the rural communities especially in Koro, sub-county that was said to have the highest rate of suicides in Uganda. He has been to Sheffield on the Commonwealth Fellowship to learn more about mental health. He is probably the most active mental health advocate in Gulu and has a supportive family behind the challenging work he does.
Benjamin Komagum (Spartos)
He is a musician based in Gulu. His music is loaded with mental health messages. His current project is music for health. His latest release titled ‘Nicango’ is about recovery from mental health challenges.
Spartos has a lived experience of depression. He is doing very well at raising awareness about mental health issues through music.
Isabirye was a Peer Support Worker at Heartsounds. Currently he works at Peer Nation which is an organization that also does advocacy and awareness. He has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and is on medication. He continues to work just like other people and has a supportive family behind him.