Uganda has witnessed a significant increase in the number of people seeking mental health services, according to the Annual Health Sector Performance report for the 2022/2023 financial year. The report, released a day after a separate study found a high prevalence of mental disorders in several districts, sheds light on the growing demand for mental health support across the country.
The statistics revealed a 14% increase in the number of patients seeking mental health services in outpatient departments. In the 2022/2023 financial year, there were 520,614 outpatient attendances due to mental health conditions, up from 455,153 in the previous year. Notably, epilepsy accounted for 50.7% of these attendances, followed by bipolar disorder at 9.7%, and unipolar depressive disorders at 8.6%.
Understanding Mental Health Conditions
Unipolar depression, often synonymous with major depressive disorder, is characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, worthlessness, a loss of interest in once-enjoyed activities, low mood, and even thoughts of suicide. It can be hereditary and is associated with a history of childhood abuse, relationship problems, divorce, and substance abuse.
Bipolar disorder, as defined by the World Health Organization, involves alternating depressive episodes and periods of manic symptoms. During depressive episodes, individuals experience prolonged feelings of sadness, irritability, and a loss of interest in activities.
The report highlights a significant 144% increase in outpatient attendances due to unipolar depressive disorder, emphasizing the pressing need for mental health support in the country. Additionally, cases of anxiety disorder due to gender-based violence increased by 47.4%. Nearly all regions reported an increase in outpatient attendances due to epilepsy, with the West Nile region having the highest numbers, followed by the south, north, and central regions.
Internet Addiction and Intellectual Disability
Another striking finding is the surge in individuals seeking help for internet addiction, which more than doubled from 971 cases in the previous financial year to 2,097 in 2022/2023. Internet addiction is described as a compulsive need to spend excessive time online at the expense of one’s relationships, work, and health.
Furthermore, cases of intellectual disability, where individuals face limitations in their ability to learn and function in daily life, witnessed a threefold increase from 805 cases to 3,776.
Overwhelmed Mental Health Units
These alarming statistics come amid reports of overwhelmed mental health units in Uganda. The Ministry of Health has responded by establishing mental health units in 13 regional referral hospitals, making mental health care more accessible to the population. Some studies and official records suggest that the prevalence of mental disorders in Uganda ranges from 18% to 35%.
According to Dr. Raymond Odokonyero, a psychiatrist and lecturer at Makerere University College of Health Sciences, the reported 35% prevalence of mental health problems in Uganda may be an underestimation. He emphasizes the dynamic nature of mental health, with individuals shifting between “red” and “green” zones based on their daily experiences and stressors.
The Impact of Mental Health Stigma
Dr. Diana Atwine, the Permanent Secretary of the Health Ministry, underscores the importance of mental health, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. She points out that stigma and discrimination against people with mental illnesses have far-reaching consequences, affecting not only individuals’ physical and psychological well-being but also their educational and economic prospects, as well as their families and loved ones.
The table below provides a summary of the top mental health conditions reported in the 2022/2023 financial year:
|Unipolar depressive disorder||44,824||8.6%|
|Other adult mental health conditions||27,744||5.3%|
|Post-traumatic stress disorder||13,293||2.6%|
|Anxiety disorder due to GBV||11,078||2.1%|
|Alcohol use disorder||11,038||2.1%|
|Substance (Drug) use disorder||7,096||1.4%|
|Other form of dementia||3,355||0.6%|
|Dementia due to stroke (diabetes, hypertension)||1,325||0.3%|
|Autism spectrum disorders||1,110||0.2%|