Poor mental health in South Sudan is prevalent and has contributed to instability and recurrence of conflict. This was said by an official from Amnesty International during a meeting held last week to discuss the mental health impact of conflict, and the availability and accessibility of services in South Sudan and in the Diaspora.
“Overlooking mental health affects the stability, economic development and reconciliation in South Sudan,” said Elizabeth Deng of Amnesty International.
Nyagoa Tut from the same organisation said “the psychological impact of conflict may not be visible, but it's all the same very present.”
Rev. Tut Mai of Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and Sudan said that trauma was a problem that followed people wherever they went, even when they become refugees.
“Trauma follows even those who are relocated to other countries, and it's even possibly worse for them,” he said.
Rev. Tut said that South Sudan survives only by the grace of God. He pleaded for unity and reconciliation among South Sudanese so as to bring peace in the country.
“We should preach love, hope, peace, reconciliation... only the Word of GOD can help us," he said.
He urged South Sudanese to stop thinking in terms of tribes and different communities, but to consider themselves as one people.
“When we stop saying 'them' and 'us', we are on the right track for South Sudan,” he told the meeting.
During the event, South Sudanese living in Nairobi got an opportunity to learn about mental health services that are available for those suffering from psychological distress, brought about by exposure to conflict and violence.
We shy away from discussing mental and emotional health
Ilya Yacevich from Global Trauma Project told the meeting that her organization supports various communities that suffer from trauma. She decried the fact that society rarely talks about issues of trauma.
“It is sad that we shy away from discussing mental and emotional health, yet it affects a whole lot of us,” she said.
Lucy Juwa from HIAS also spoke about the work they do in Kenya with various refugee communities, while the UNHCR highlighted their own research into behaviours of refugees and the attitudes and perceptions they hold concerning their situation.
The meeting was attended by hundreds of South Sudanese, some of whom narrated their experiences of conflict and trauma. Those who spoke said they have never received any of form of trauma counseling, and they also lack awareness about the existence of mental health services.
Over 10 organisations displayed resources and crafts made by refugees at the resource fair, which attracted a lot of interest from those who attended. Many refugees NGOs working on refugee issues were also represented.
The meeting created awareness among participants of the psychological impact of experiencing traumatic events, and learnt about methods for coping and supporting family and friends in psychological distress.
Chronic shortage of mental health care services
This meeting comes soon after the release of a report by Amnesty International in May, which revealed the chronic shortage of mental healthcare services in South Sudan. The report, ‘Our Hearts Have Gone Dark: The Mental Health Impact of South Sudan’s Conflict’, documented the psychological impact of mass killings, rape, torture, abductions and even a case of forced cannibalism, on the survivors and witnesses of these crimes.
There are currently only two practicing psychiatrists in the entire country of 11 million people. At the same time, only one public hospital in the country - Juba Teaching Hospital - provides psychiatric care, with an inpatient ward capacity of 12 beds only. These revelations are crucial, coming at a time when the UN included mental health as an element of the new global Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on health in 2015.
The report adds that the absence of services is resulting in mental health conditions such as depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) going untreated.
South Sudan became independent on July 9, 2011 after decades of war, which saw thousands of people injure or killed, and women abducted and raped, causing them trauma and psychological distress.
The African Union (AU) Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo noted in its final report that trauma appeared to be a key consequence of the conflict.
According to the Ministry of Health, there are only the equivalent of one and a half physicians and two nurses/midwives for every 100,000 citizens, all of whom are disproportionately based in urban areas.
The health sector is allocated only 3 percent of the 2015-16 national budget, far short of the 15 percent target pledged by African governments under the Abuja declaration in 2001.
Mental health is defined as the state of emotional and psychological wellbeing in which individuals can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively, and be active members of the community.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in situations of armed conflict and other emergencies, the proportion of the population suffering from mild or moderate mental disorders rises from about 10 percent to 15-20 percent.