FROM UGANDA TO LONDON AND BACK.
Twenty six years ago, in 1997, I was a student at a tertiary institution in Uganda when I experienced my first mental breakdown which led to my first contact with mental health services. I was admitted at Butabika National Referral Mental Hospital in Uganda and was diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder. The death of my mother two years later was another big stressor in my life that created a vacuum in my life. I found myself at a crossroads with what to do with my life. I chose to join my siblings in the diaspora. In December 1999 I travelled to the UK in search of a better life. This later proved to be a wrong turn in my life.
Two weeks after my arrival in the UK, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in East London due to a mental breakdown that resulted from the stress of overworking to make ends meet. I was discharged after a month, however, the stress of doing menial jobs in antisocial hours and working illegally did not subside. I was in a constant state of fear that the police would find out I was working illegally under pseudonyms since I did not have documents authorising me to work in the UK. My fear increased to a level of paranoia that led to an altercation with my sister who was hosting me in her one bedroom flat in London. This resulted in a hospitalisation of seven years of inpatient care in a secure setting on a mental health section.
During my stay in hospital in the UK, I became involved in various service user representation initiatives. This led me to joining the Working Together group monthly meeting at my hospital in East London. It also led to the birth of the Butabika East London Link, an international partnership between two psychiatric institutions in Uganda and the UK. Several exchange visits took place between the two establishments, including one that involved clinicians who had treated me at Butabika coming to visit me in East London and we were able to dialogue in our indigenous Luganda language which brought about nostalgic feelings for my people back home in Uganda.
In 2007 I won my Mental Health Review Tribunal and plans were put in place for me to resettle back in the community. The treatment I was receiving in the UK was now also available in my country Uganda, so I was asked whether I would like to go back to my country or stay in the UK. I chose to relocate back to Uganda voluntarily.
In November 2007 there was a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that was to be hosted by Uganda. On this occasion, a UK health professional that was passionate about service user involvement came to visit Uganda as part of the Butabika East London Link exchange programme. One of the people he wanted to meet was myself to continue the work and relationship started earlier in east London. We connected with Joseph Atukunda, who became very instrumental in bringing together service users in the formation of Heartsounds Uganda, the first mental health service user-led and -user managed organisation in Uganda. After its disbandment 5 years later the majority of the membership relocated to Butabika Hospital under the Brain Gain peer support project, which I ended up heading as the coordinator of the Butabika Recovery College.
With my foresighted leadership, as a way of sustaining the peer support work further at the end of these projects, we thought of reviving an independent peer-led organisation, based in the community instead of institutions. This saw the formation of Peer Nation.
Peer Nation is a mental health service user or peer led Non-Governmental Indigenous Organisation based in Kampala, Uganda. We do community work in mental health focusing primarily on peer support work. This involves supporting ourselves and our peers to recover from mental health challenges. We have had three projects, two funded by Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA) and the other by UK Department of Health and Social Care managed by Tropical Health and Education Trust (THET).
The unique attribute about Peer Nation is that it is a mental health service user or peer led organisation. 60% of the Board of Directors is comprised of persons with a lived experience of mental health challenges. The membership is largely service user dominated, although we have some mental health professionals and other well-wishers included. There are other mental health organisations in Uganda although only a few are service user led like Peer Nation.
Since 2015, Kampala-based peer support workers have provided over 3500 peer support sessions to over 1500 clients. Approximately 500 of these contacts were in people’s houses or at community outreaches. Without a doubt the peer support workers showed that they have capacity to do the work and do it well.