Mental health experts in the country have said addressing mental illness is not enough to save the country from the surge in fatal gun violence.
“The socio-economic situation is worsening in the country,” says Dr Kenneth Kalani, a psychiatrist at the Health ministry. He says: “Some people can cope with negative ways such as quarreling and violent acts, which are negative ways of coping.”
Dr Stephen Okiror, a clinical psychiatrist at Butabika hospital, says gun violence could be birthed by “an emotional reaction.” The violence has tied the country in knots, with 10 fatal shootings registered in the country in the past fortnight.
“Mental illness has criteria for its diagnosis. Being violent when someone angers you doesn’t qualify you to be diagnosed with mental illness,” Dr Okiror says.
Some bacterial infections, auto-immune diseases, brain (head) injuries, poor nutrition and exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment can trigger mental illnesses, according to scientists.
“Mental illness is a bit strong as symptoms are consistent and they affect the daily life of the affected person,” Dr Kalani notes.
The symptoms of mental illness can include but aren’t limited to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder (mood swings), or schizophrenia (delusion and lack of motivation).
Mental health problems on the other hand, Dr Kalani explains, are majorly those isolated (inconsistent) reactions to “stressful circumstances in life such as hardship in accessing basic needs such as food and other social welfare such as paying school fees.”
Dr Kalani says people should be ready to handle challenges that come in life with resilience. The psychiatrist says a common challenge is that some stressed people don’t know how to cope very well.
He adds that as the socio-economic situation worsens in the country, people can cope in negative ways such as quarrelling and violent acts.
“Others will keep quiet, start drinking alcohol, use drugs or resort to suicide and self-harm. These are negative ways of coping,” the expert explains.
Dr Kalani says Ugandans should be aware there are lots of changes and new challenging situations coming up.
“Covid-19 came then there was Ebola. These situations affect the survival [and livelihood] of people, and so survival instincts kick in,” he explains, adding, “Survival instincts are primitive and sometimes the affected person can become violent.”
Mr Ali Male, a counselling psychologist at A-Z Professional Counselling Support Centre, concurs.
“People who grew up in violent families have unresolved anger and they don’t know how to resolve conflicts peacefully. They only remember violent means. When you give them a gun, [they may use it to perpetrate gun violence],” he says.
He adds: “The other issue is that exposure to gun violence is also a factor. Many soldiers have had that exposure –some kind of fire exchange, those who went for war.”
The psychologist explains that this exposure impacts on mental health because it alters brain chemicals, leading to chronic insecurity, stress and trauma.
“Such things, if they are not resolved within the soldier, can always trigger anger,” Mr Male says.
Some mental health experts also say those with severe mental illness are less likely to commit crime. Instead, they are, Mr Male says, “more likely to harm themselves than they are to hurt other people.”
The experts, however, say the government and communities should do more to address the problem of mental illness and mental health problems.
Dr Kalani believes “everyone should be their brother’s keeper”, adding that the common symptoms are when you notice that somebody is changing from the normal, beginning to withdraw, beginning to get angry and having frequent anger outbursts.
The other symptoms, include having challenges with sleep, poor feeding habits, having trouble concentrating, and relating with other people, and being irritable, among others.