Uganda is at the center of Africa’s refugee crisis. Bordering the conflict zones of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, the country has seen a flood of refugees in recent years. Since 2016, Uganda has absorbed more than a million refugees, mostly women and children, and now hosts more refugees than any country in the world except Turkey.
Up to forty percent of refugee women suffer from depression, compared to a depression rate of between 20 and 25 percent among other vulnerable women across Uganda. StrongMinds has treated refugee women on a limited basis as part of our group talk therapy sessions in Kampala slums, where more than 100,000 refugees now live. But with nearly 1.1 million South Sudanese refugees settled in camps along the northern border, we are expanding into the northern regions of Uganda to provide treatment specifically for refugee communities.
In refugee populations, depression is triggered by a series of successive traumatic events. Not only have they been displaced from their homes and separated from loved ones, some have been held captive, incarcerated or tortured. Many have seen spouses, parents, or children taken away or executed. Women often have been victims of rape or sex trafficking.
After difficult journeys to safety, refugees arriving in Uganda are faced with a new set of hardships: Trying to establish homes and livelihoods where they have no social connections. Those who are placed in urban areas struggle to find a community to accept them; many have no choice but to work illegally. Refugee settlement camps are notoriously risky places for women. The mere act of fetching water or firewood for the day can take them over long distances, exposing women to the threat of sexual trauma.
Unable to speak the local language, shunned for work, and exposed to high levels of crime, a refugee woman will feel overwhelmed and powerless. Without gainful employment or a sense of purpose, she will start to experience low self-esteem and isolation, which can lead to depression. She may grow despondent and detached, and start to neglect care of herself and her children. If left untreated, depression gets handed down from generation to generation, as cycles of emotional withdrawal, neglect or abuse are repeated.
StrongMinds treats depression in refugee populations using Group Interpersonal Therapy (IPT-G). These 12 week group talk therapy programs are led by mental health facilitators, who provide a safe space for women to share their experiences, learn about the triggers and symptoms of depression, and develop strategies for overcoming their challenges. Seventy- five percent of the women we treat remain depression-free six months after the conclusion of therapy.
Through partnerships with aid organizations working in northern Uganda, we aim to treat depression in some 7,000 refugee women from 2019 to 2022, with another 29,000 children and young people subsequently thriving because their mothers are now depression-free. With their mental health restored, these women and their families have the chance to go on to live healthy, productive, satisfying lives.