YALI Voices Podcast: Uganda’s Elizabeth Kasujja Talks to Bakary Fatty on Mental Health and Healing

Bakary Fatty and Elizabeth Kasujja are two energetic and committed young leaders who are working on the front lines of youth leadership and community engagement.

In this #YALIVoices podcast, Bakary interviews Elizabeth on the challenges of working in the health sector and how to better encourage other young people to take action.

Woman and man sitting at table talking, with YALI Network poster on wall behind them (State Dept.)
Elizabeth Kasujja from Uganda talks about her work on mental health with Bakary Fatty of The Gambia at the 2017 Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit in Washington. (State Dept.)

In addition to being a columnist and radio talk show host, Bakary is also the administrative secretary of the National Youth Parliament of The Gambia, where he actively engages youth in discussions on politics and law.

Elizabeth is the CEO and co-founder of Clear Your Mind, an organization that utilizes technology to aid patients suffering from depression and raise awareness to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues in Uganda. She shares her personal story as to how she got involved in the mental health sector and how she believes communities can step up and provide support for those marginalized due to their mental health status: “You find that if it starts with each and every one of us, if we do not understand the problem, then we won’t be able to be part of the solution.”

Bakary and Elizabeth share strategies for how others can better engage with their governments and societies at large through outreach, holding governments and leaders accountable for better health care, and the use of technology in spreading helpful information.

They conclude with a reflection on how the YALI Network has helped them connect with other individuals working in their sectors and the importance of utilizing all tools and resources available in order to have the positive impact you desire in your community.

To hear more about the role these young leaders are playing to reduce mental health stigma in their communities, listen below:

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE

YALI Voices Podcast: Bakary Fatty Interviews Elizabeth Kasujja

Transcript

BAKARY FATTY: We are young. We are Africans. And we are leaders. We are YALI. This is our voice.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪

BAKARY: My name is Bakary Fatty from The Gambia. I work with the National Youth Parliament as an administrative secretary. I run a TV and a radio program on Capital FM where I interview politicians, community leaders and activists.

Elizabeth Kasujja has five years’ experience in the health sector of Uganda. Currently she’s the co-founder and CEO at Clear Your Mind, where they build technologies focused on mitigating the mental health illness of depression before it becomes chronic. They also raise awareness about mental health within Ugandan communities to contribute to reduction of this stigmatization of mentally ill or depressed people.

Elizabeth has certification in public health from John[s] Hopkins and Bloomberg University of Public Health and is currently pursuing a diploma in psychology. She is passionate about technology and the power it has to transform the health sector. The bulk of her work as Clear Your Mind CEO involves development, review and refinement of the company’s business strategy and execution of that strategy to obtain a leading position in the marketplace. She has chosen the path of entrepreneurship within the health sector because health is what makes everything this relevant.

In that regard, she desires to make a big difference where it matters most. She’s an innovative business leader, and upon completion of the Mandela Washington Fellowship Elizabeth plans to continue her work raising awareness of mental health. Elizabeth, you are welcome.

ELIZABETH KASUJJA: Thank you very much.

BAKARY: If I may ask you, why is this work important?

ELIZABETH: Thank you. Work in the mental health sector, you’ll find that when you look at my country, I come from Uganda, and in Uganda, only 0.7 percent of the total budget is allocated to mental health. So you’ll find that it’s one of the very ignored sectors, and yet, in actual sense without a healthy mind, you’re not healthy. So most of us as a people, our culture, we don’t really pay attention to our mind. Yet with an unhealthy mind, you can’t really have a healthy body.

BAKARY: According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people from all ages suffer from depression. Looking at how serious this issue is, what are some of the challenges, as a health worker, that you need to overcome in order to make sure that this is actually handled well within Uganda?

ELIZABETH: You’ll find that even according to the WHO commission, over 350 million people are suffering from this annually. And still, according to the World Health Organization, every five minutes you are sitting here, someone is going to commit suicide. These are really huge statistics. But you’ll find that in Africa, especially, there is still a lot of stigma and discrimination on mental health. Some of the challenges at first is the moment I mention the fact that I actually work in the health sector, when I mention mental health, everyone starts to look at me different.

They start to wonder, hmm, is she crazy too? Hmm, what demons is she hiding? What is she dealing with? Then, there are these crazy questions people like to ask. So, can you read my mind? Can you help me overcome this problem? And, also, the fact that there isn’t much funding for the sector, you’ll find that to make a difference within the sector, you have to come up with a lot of your own personal resources. Personally, I ventured into the mental health field because of a personal experience.

My father was diagnosed with cancer, and we almost lost him. It was a very tough time on the family, financially, economically, socially. We felt like outcasts. He had depression, and he requested that we pay for him to see a counselor. Number 1, finding a counselor that you could see was really hard. Number 2, when we finally found a counselor, they were charging over $100 per hour, and we couldn’t quite afford that at the time, given that all these other expenses had cropped up. So I set about finding the statistics. What’s happening in the world out there?

How many people are dealing with this problem? How many people reach that point that my father reached where you feel like maybe it’s not worth it? Maybe I’m too much of a burden to others. Because when someone is depressed, depression is not a personal problem like most people think. If I am depressed, it’s going to ripple outwards. Everyone around me will end up somehow being affected, although they do not realize it.

So, he reached a point where he wanted to end his life just because he was depressed, and depression is caused by very many, a varying range of factors. So, despite all the challenges I face in the field, I’m really determined to make a difference.

BAKARY: Based on this specific issue on challenges that you do encounter, some might be wondering, is it possible to actually come up with practical solutions in ensuring that the issue of depression is properly handled? You look at the number of people that suffer from depression annually, and you look at the resources involved in terms of handling that kind of a mental illness. Do you think that’s a possibility of coping these diseases?

ELIZABETH: I’m so glad you asked that question, because I really wanted to say this on this podcast. It begins with each and every one of us. Most of us do not accept mentally ill people, because we don’t know. We don’t understand how to handle them. So if we could only be a little kinder, a little bit more understanding. And you can’t be understanding of something that you are not aware of, which is part of the reason our work at Clear Your Mind is so important. We go out into communities. We communicate. We participate in village rituals, health activities within the communities, because the people need to know.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

ELIZABETH: Where we come from, if someone undergoes, let’s say they are schizophrenic, most people will say that is witchcraft, or their ancestors have come to get them. Is that the same in your country?
BAKARY: No

ELIZABETH: Exactly. You find that if it starts with each and every one of us, if we do not understand the problem, then we won’t be able to be part of the solution. So as far as practical solutions go, the mental health community is willing to provide all the support we can give. Because let’s say, for example, someone has a mental health episode, and it escalates, and they have to be admitted into the mental referral hospital.

After they have become better, they then need to be released back into the community, and if the community is where their problem started and escalated, and there is still no acceptance in that community, you’ll find that we’ll have recurring patients coming back for the same problem.

BAKARY: It is widely held, as you rightly pointed it out, by people in the village communities that when you have diseases like schizophrenia, you are regarded as someone suffering from witchcraft. Is the community therefore, have some kind of responsibility, members of the community who have the responsibility, or to contribute when it comes to making sure that these people that are suffering from these diseases are actually being taken care of? But a question that one would ask is how available the right held information to the public in order to make sure that they take the right decision. Especially in your country.

ELIZABETH: Yes. I’ll give you a few statistics about my country. We have a population of 38 million, and we are served by 34 psychiatrists. That’s a ratio of one psychiatrist for over 1 million people. Then, we have one national referral mental hospital, where everyone comes, and if, let’s say, you need admission, we have 1.83 beds for every 100,000 people that might need the service. So you’ll find that is still a very big challenge in Africa that we need to overcome, and our governments need to recognize this. Our mental health policy was last amended in 1964. We have a draft that has been pending since 2003 on mental health.

So we need our government systems to come in to recognize that this is a real problem, because as soon as it is more acceptable, then we will begin to see the change we seek to make.

BAKARY: Going back to the WHO’s report in regards to mental health, they believe that it’s one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, and the major contributor to the overall global burden of diseases. Now, as a government, since 2003, the mental health policy has actually been drafted, but not yet implemented or not yet put into legislation. Do you think there is any possibility or do you have any hope that that policy will actually be considered and if so, when? But if not, why do you think also?

ELIZABETH: I have hope, because day by day, there are more people, there are more advocates that are cropping up for mental health. You’ll find that if you live in a society where not many people care about something, you can’t really raise a harmonized voice. So the more players that join in the field from civil society, academia, public health, the more players that we have — private sector — the better we can raise a harmonized voice and advocate for these policies to be put in place. It has kept changing over the years.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

BAKARY: As an activist, do you have strategies that you normally implement in order to rally other activists behind you, or journalists, for instance, who are very powerful in terms of communicating the information or the message to the ordinary people in rural communities, for instance? What strategies are you actually using, ensuring that you have more people behind you, to fight for your cause? As it is very important, as you know.

ELIZABETH: Yes, it is. Thank you. Our initial strategy was to go out into the communities and really help people understand what we are dealing with and why we need more people rallied behind us. And then, our next strategy is to then encourage these people to turn to their leaders, because when there is demand for accountability of services, our leaders will provide these services that we need. Otherwise, without the demand, then the supply will not rise up to meet that, an existing demand.

Also, I mentioned that at Clear Your Mind, we are building a platform using IT where anyone who is dealing with depression and needs to talk to someone, you can just go through our portal, you can make a phone call or make a video call or make an appointment to see a professional and, you know, just have someone to talk to, realize your options, know what you can do to improve your situation, and already, we have some people who are signing up. I was very surprised, actually. I put out a post on my Facebook, and I had an overwhelming —

BAKARY: Reaction from people?

ELIZABETH: Exactly. So many people really want to talk about this, but they don’t know how to, because it has been abomination for so long. Very many people don’t know how to quite approach it. So I encourage people, you know, share your stories, share your expertise, join us in the movement, let’s talk, let’s keep talking. With mental health, it comes down to as long as you keep talking, change will happen, so let’s keep talking.

One of the lessons I’ve learned very early on as a social entrepreneur is use everything you can, and since traditional media, like newspapers and TV, is expensive, and social media is literally free, one of the first ways we established ourselves was using digital tools. So, I would say, it really helped us make big strides, ’cause it got us noticed, and it helped us get the right people interested, just by that visibility.

So, with that, I would just like to encourage all other entrepreneurs, put yourself out there. You don’t need to first accumulate so much money. You can start with, like you mentioned, your Facebook, Twitter. If you have pictures, you do Instagram, Pinterest, WhatsApp, you get your message out every way you can.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

BAKARY: What ideas do you have in terms of collaborating with the YALI Network?

ELIZABETH: The YALI Network is amazing. It is huge. It is beyond the 1,000 people that we have here. And it’s been amazing meeting people like you, Bakary. On day one, when we had those caucuses where we could all meet in our different sectors and talk to the people, I met other people who are working in the mental health space and are as deeply inspired. So, I’ve been connecting with so many people here. You’ll find that you don’t have to be a public health specialist to make a difference in mental health.

For example, you could be an entrepreneur that sells baskets and dresses, but a part of your proceeds then goes to contribute to the cause of mental health. Or whenever you have an opportunity to talk to people, you give them tidbits of knowledge about mental health, and the people I’ve met here are extremely amazing, and I plan to keep in touch. You know, Africa, we are one. If we could only learn to delete those lanes, the borders in our minds, we are actually one.

So you’ll find that what I want for my Uganda, my Africa, is probably what you want for The Gambia, and it’s what someone in Kenya wants. A young, thriving, positive Africa, that’s just growing.

I’d like to say that it doesn’t take much to be kinder, to care a bit more, to ask someone you care about, “How are you?” And really take the time to find out how they are. And, as young leaders, each of us has a leader within us. As young leaders, we need to learn to use our voices. Don’t be afraid to use your voice to talk about what you care about the most. That is how people listen. That is how people rally behind you to support whatever you’re doing. So, I would encourage everyone to let’s make our contribution to mental health. Let’s keep talking. Let’s make it more acceptable. Let’s get rid of the stigma and discrimination and create a world where we live free of depression.

BAKARY: Elizabeth Kasujja, thank you for being on the YALI Voices Network.

ELIZABETH: Thank you so much.

VOICEOVER: Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast.

Join the YALI Network at yali.state.gov and be a part of something bigger!

Our theme music is “E Go Happen,” by Grace Jerry and produced by the Presidential Precinct.

The YALI Voices podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.

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