KAMPALA, UGANDA – Twenty-two-year-old Meta Josten from the Democratic Republic of Congo was already living a hard life in one of Uganda’s refugee settlements. When the Ugandan government announced measures last year to control the spread of COVID-19, life got even harder.
With little or no work available to locals, Josten, who previously survived on casual labor outside the settlement, had no income to supplement the aid his family was given.
For Josten, who lived with five siblings and a jobless father, it was the hunger that almost got him to take his life.
“We slept two days without eating food,” Josten said. “We were just surviving on just porridge. A bit of porridge sustained us for a few moments. By then I was like if it’s like this, which means, it’s useless for me to stay in this world.”
Mamuru Jackson, a refugee from South Sudan, said it was the lack of human interaction that pushed him to the brink. Having fled to Uganda with a younger brother, leaving his mother and father in South Sudan, Jackson wasn’t ready to assume the role of a parent.
“Actually, that thought came into my mind,” Jackson said. “Because I feel like I’m alone in this world. And also, the work at home. Because I was only an elder person. The other brother of mine is still very young. I feel overwhelmed.”
Male Ali, a psychologist, and counselor said both Josten’s and Jackson’s conditions were deepened due to the thought of not being cared for after separation from family. He outlines the underlying issues.
“Parental abuse, poverty,” Ali said. “Those who have been stricken … Those who are traumatized. Especially those who faced violence. Exchange of bullets now likes for the refugee dwellers. And they really had a lot of post-traumatic stress that was now transitioning them to another stage of contemplating suicide.”
Psychologists say the contemplation of suicide takes place in stages. These include losing hope, planning on how to end their lives by either using an overdose, poison, ropes, or falling from high elevations — and finally accomplishing the act.
It is at the second stage that psychologists say people at risk must get the attention they need to prevent them from going through with suicide.
Professor Eugene Kanyinda is a member of the Medical Research Council Unit of Uganda.
“Illnesses for example like depression in our African culture are not recognized as mental illnesses,” Kanyinda said. “So, I think there’s a need for people to understand that, I mean, if you see a relative, for example, talking of suicide, don’t take it lightly. I mean, the person probably is already entertaining those ideas.”
Some warning signs psychiatrists said one should look out for are withdrawal, crying, self-isolation, loss of interest in formerly pleasurable activities, and lack of sleep.
For survivors of suicide attempts, counselors refer to them as heroes, to encourage them to think positively.