2019…the 8th day of March
Is when I can vividly remember
Having heard of the name “Hazel” from our “supervisor” of the day
And I happened to save her contact in my phone, as I usually do…for clarity purposes.
May 2020…. a year later,
I am scrolling through my WhatsApp contacts and I land on Hazel’s contact
Saved right there; in my phone!!!
My heart was tickled
I will be telling you why shortly.
On Twitter, for a while,
I have been following this particular account named “@mentallyawareug” and their content, too
Being a lover of good health (which obviously has the component of mental health in it), I loved it and their determination to share with us messages of inspiration, hope and light
And that is how I got to know that Hazel happens to be the founder of this initiative!
Hazel says that so many Ugandans are not mentally aware, in the first place and so, in order for us to attain a mentally healthy Uganda, we have to know what is what.
Her top-most aim now, is to create awareness and for the masses to know that they have a problem, get to know where they can access help which, big picture, looks at having a mentally healthy Uganda.
I initiated the conversation with Hazel
And so far, I have had quite an insightful view into what Mindful Conversations is all about.
For example, as I am writing this, I am looking at a poster that reads,
“#MindfulConversations presents #10MessagesOfHope” from people who survived and continue to survive. Mental health matters. You matter!!!
- Is there anything better to hear at this moment, right now, that is better than that final line of the message?
- Remember when I told you that I see you? Yeah…I meant something like this.
Me: What inspired you to start Mindful Conversations?
Hazel: Honestly, I think it is life. Since 18, I worked but what I did is not what I wanted to do. I got to a point where, for lack of better words, the psychology was oozing out of me. I was bringing my unasked-for opinions in my personal relationships with my friends, my partner at the time, I was bringing it into the workplace and I realised that this is what I want to do and so many things around me were not right and they were so normalized. It is NOT RIGHT that a schizophrenic person should be running around the street and people are unbothered. Like they are literally like, “it’s okay. Its normal”. It’s NOT RIGHT that your boss has a drinking problem or whatever and its none of our business; we should be quiet and there are no policies to help. It is NOT RIGHT that may be the office-manager has post-par-tum depression but everyone is telling her, “get over it” or “don’t work on Saturday; come back on Monday” …like it is just brushed off. There were just so many things that were not right and I was part of the problem. I had the degree and I wasn’t using it because I was chasing money. And yet, I can do both. Yeah, earning a living is important but people need the help and we’ve been equipped with the skills and the knowledge to help but we are not doing it. So many things around me were not okay and sitting right with my soul and I needed to be a part of the solution. I guess the fact that I have a following on Twitter, I would share my information. People would ask me questions and they would DM me and I just kept giving them my Professor’s numbers and I am like, “I am not really helping”. This is someone who has finally talked to me…like they have finally admitted to themselves and to me that they have a problem and all I doing is, “speak to this person, speak to the other person”. I decided to take it upon myself. That’s why it is called Mindful Conversations. It started with a hashtag. I hash tagged Mindful Conversations and I would make a thread on depression, stress…just the small tiny bits of information and people wanted to know more about their lives or to know that they are not alone in what they are going through isn’t made up in their heads; it is real. That they can get better and seek treatment. Then, I decided to make Mindful Conversations…to start it, to actually do the work, to meet these people, to give them psycho-social support which is free-of-charge. The initial therapy session is free-of-charge. Those who can’t fully afford therapy, we pay for them. A friend, then later on, came and is willing to pay for 2 people therapy, every month. Everything would just come together but one thing I knew was people need the help now. Sitting and mourning and complaining and doing a shit-job I don’t care about and taking applications out to all these NGOs that are also overwhelmed, under-funded or they are even doing it for the wrong reasons…like they just want the donors’ money and are not passionate. Doing that was not helping. I had to now actually be part of the solution; not just complain when I meet with my friends for drinks, “Oh my God, Oh my God the system”. I had to actively create the change I want to see and I just decided that, “you know what, let me just do this thing”. Even if every month, we reach just one person, that is one person who is better…who is going to feel better!
Me: Which year was Mindful Conversations “born”?
Hazel: 2018…. on the 7th day of April. I started it with my personal Twitter account disseminating information on mental health and wellness, mental illness. Then later, I started to separate accounts for it all and began to work on it fully.
Me: Is there a particular age-group targeted by Mindful Conversations?
Hazel: Not particularly. We want to help any and every one; That is to say every Ugandan and East African and person living in Uganda. Mostly women and children, rape and abuse survivors…regardless of age, gender, economic status. We do prioritize the most vulnerable; who in our society that is patriarchal are the women, children, rape survivors, members of the LGBTQI community among others. The prevailing structures and systems of our society make it easier for one individual to get help than for another person. Someone that is a heterosexual coming from an upper middle-income family can easily attain help or the time I would spend helping them might not be the same for someone, say in the case of lower economic-status, from a rural background, or is LGBTQI among others. The process I will go through to help this person will not be the same.
Me: As we speak now, is there anybody you work with at Mindful Conversations?
Hazel: At the moment, there is nobody I work with at Mindful Conversations. I am what you can call “the everything”.
On the other hand, there is a number of individuals who support the work done at Mindful Conversations like Michelle Mboha who goes by the Twitter handle, “@mishi254”, there is Dr. Oijambo Deborah of Safe-Haven Child and Family Centre and her team, Allan Nsubuga and Severus Hama-Owemparo (Community Psychologists by training).
Some of these individuals like Brenda Ibarah – a story-teller and Disc Jockey and Anne-Marie are actually our clients who have joined us in the fight to end stigma and create awareness. It is because many of our patients are becoming part of the Mindful Conversations family.
Me: Are there any moments you can never forget from this whole experience with Mindful Conversations?
Hazel: Every time I check in on a patient and they say… “I am actually okay” and it is a real “I am fine”. They have two “I-am-fine(s)”; the “I-am-fine where it is real and then, the second “I-am-fine” where they eventually are like, “but”, then they tell me what is happening. Every time they tell me “I am okay” or “I had a panic attack and the skills that you taught me helped me and I think now I can manage and continue to leave a normal life where I have accepted my new normal” …. (sigh)
Every time I get that message, I feel that this is actually working! That is everything to me.
Me: In case somebody needs to render some help to this initiative, can they pass it on? How can they do that? And where do they pass on this assistance, they carry with them?
Hazel: OF COURSE, they can, in numerous ways!!! They can support us financially. They can share our content on social media. Volunteering with us can be another way, praying for us is also very welcome.
Anyone can reach out on email at email@example.com or alternatively, call us on +256 777 832731. I would like to provide my personal number; strictly for WhatsApp, +256 794 307594. This would work best because for now, it is me doing all the work and you will be in direct touch with me. Feel free to send in your contribution to the cause via mobile money and in turn, we will share with you the accountability of your support.
For now, during these times of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are making proper use of the donations we get by facilitating the transportation of our clients to their therapy sessions or paying for sessions in therapy.
Me: In your own view, how is the future looking like for you and Mindful Conversations and the state of mental health in Uganda?
Hazel: The future is mostly looking very good. We are well on our way to a mentally aware and healthy Uganda.
We just need people in positions of power to also take mental health of all Ugandans seriously. The mentally-ill are not prioritized. Mental health isn’t taken seriously enough so laws and policies need to be made. That is because before the 2015 Mental Health Bill, there was nothing in place….from way back in the 1960’s. Imagine!!! The law we have in place is half-baked. It is not good enough, needs a lot of improvement and has been broadly critiqued by the rest of the corners of the world. There is the 2018 Uganda Mental Health Treatment Act but is it really being implemented? If you speak with any Ugandan, you might find that many of our people are not even aware of these policies and what is available to protect the mentally-ill. If you try to inquire from a Ugandan about where they can take somebody who is having difficulty with their mental health, for those that are somewhat well-off will tell you about Serenity Centre in Entebbe but the average person will tell you about Butabika. Yet, we should have mental health facilities available at all referral hospitals, all hospitals (public and privately owned). The privately-owned hospitals try, which has been a big improvement. For example, when I was younger, I went to be tested for the HIV. What happened in the past was that you would literally be handed your results-slip and that was the end of it. Nowadays, you get to see a counsellor or a psychologist before handing you your results-slip…which is a good shift in these facilities and institutions. How about the public health-facilities? What is happening there?
When I think about all this, I wonder….”what more can I do, for mental health in Uganda? ”
Are you aware of the Mental Health Treatment Act of Uganda, 2018?