When 16-year-old Gabriele first entered Uganda as a South Sudanese refugee, he never imagined he’d soon be traveling to Kampala to lobby Parliament and Ministry officials for new mental health policies.
Gabriele, who attends school in Uganda’s Palabek refugee settlement, is one of nearly 12,000 adolescents in Africa who have received depression treatment from StrongMinds since 2019. Our school-based therapy model involves training teachers to run therapy groups for their learners, reducing depression rates, and creating a more positive learning environment for all.
Building on this success, StrongMinds Uganda is advocating for new country-level adolescent mental healthcare policies. Between April and August of 2022, we identified and trained learners and female teachers from five districts around the country to serve as mental health advocates. All had experienced StrongMinds therapy as group members or leaders. After a period of fact-finding at their respective schools and communities, the advocates discovered that:
- Schools did not prioritize the mental health of learners and teachers, resulting in harmful coping mechanisms such as substance abuse and risky sexual behaviors.
- Institutions lacked safe spaces for children with mental health challenges.
- Persistent stigma indicated that a school-wide approach was needed.
The advocates then traveled to Kampala to submit their findings along with a petition to the Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) and Members of Parliament calling for the prioritization of mental health in schools, inclusion of talk therapy in the national school curriculum, and increased funding for adolescent mental health. In addition to their lobbying efforts, Gabriele and his peers wrote a skit about the impact of depression on school life that they performed for Ministers on World Teacher’s Day. While the subject matter was difficult, the learners had fun. “I played the school headmaster,” Gabriele says with a mischievous smile.
Their work paid off. In September, the MoES issued a directive to all schools to prioritize learners’ mental health. The guidelines require that schools provide at least one hour of basic counseling and psychosocial support each week, allocate a minimum of 1% of their funding to mental health services, and partner with local providers (citing StrongMinds as a resource) to create a referral network.
The Parliamentary Committee on Health and Education moved to increase funding for mental healthcare. Officials also joined StrongMinds on fact-finding missions across the country to assess the mental health situation in schools. StrongMinds will continue to expand its advocacy work in Uganda in 2023, with the goal of signing an MOU with the MoES to ensure the timely roll-out and oversight of these policies.
“Mental health is a shared responsibility,” says Charlotte Oloya, Head of Advocacy for StrongMind Uganda. “We each must do our part to help raise awareness, not just for the students, but for the teachers, too.”8