12 July 2017
Mental health nurse Emma Gilbert has spent nine months volunteering in Kampala, Uganda, within the Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAHM) project implemented by the East London NHS Foundation and the Butabika Hospital. What follows is the account of her experience in Uganda.
With a background in anthropology and a career in radio, my interest for global health only developed at a later stage of my life. I qualified as a mental health nurse and from the beginning I found the idea of working in global health very appealing. When, in 2015, the East London NHS Foundation was looking for a mental health nurse for their health partnership in Uganda, I jumped at the opportunity.
Understandably, the first question that my family and friends asked was: Why are you going?
The answer was pretty easy: when the project was launched there were, I think, only five child psychiatrists in Uganda, a country where 60% of the population is under 16. The lack of specialised human resources was appalling, so in implementing a training course for CAMH the partnership was trying to address a very obvious need.
child psychiatrists in Uganda.
The training course was designed by Dr Allison Hall, from East London, in collaboration with Dr Godfred Jokundo and Dr Joyce Naluja, the two psychiatrists from Butabika Hospital who run the course in Kampala. The programme promotes a multidisciplinary approach, to foster better integration of services, a real problem in a country where child healthcare often falls under primary care and there is a lack of specialist services. Therefore the training attracted a really interesting mix of health professionals, not only psychiatric clinical officers, but also paediatricians, nurses, social workers, psychiatrists and medical doctors. The enthusiasm of the people I was teaching was probably one of the best things of the job. They took time out of their formative jobs, and travelled from all over the country to take part in incredibly long teaching days. At the end of these, at 6 or 7 pm, we usually had a question session. I did not expect anybody to have the energy to keep going. I was wrong. The dedication – the interest was great. And because CAMH is a relatively new area, you could really feel their hunger for leadership, for pioneering the field.
At the hospital we saw the broad spectrum of mental health disorders. Sometimes that would also include severe learning disabilities or episodes of psychosis and issues linked to trauma or abuse. If a person had emotional behaviour difficulties, which wouldn’t necessarily be classified with a mental health diagnosis, they would still come to Butabika. There were all these factors in play which meant that diagnosis, although important, wasn’t always the first thing that we addressed. In many cases we were operating almost like a children’s home
The majority of our cases, however, were epilepsy. The child’s family often believed that epilepsy was contagious or that the child was bewitched. In many instances we saw evidence of violence on epileptic children. They were often brought to traditional healers and went through all sorts of ceremonies.
There is still stigma attached to mental health in general and by extension to the Butabika hospital, which means that the hospital is often the last resource. I saw a lot of brain injuries that could have being avoided if they had come to us sooner. The work that has been done with the trainees is also helping to overcome and challenge the wrong beliefs, but it is a slow process.
The training has been instrumental in developing CAMH services. It has generated the interest of the Ministry of Health, which we have tried to engage from Day 1. We also have university accreditation which was extremely important in order to attract new students. Before the very few CAMH specialists were operating individually with lack of support, supervision or platforms to share any kind of clinical knowledge, a network for collaboration and discussion has been established. Finally, we collaborated with the Ministry to write policy guidelines on CAMH services. I feel very proud of what the course achieved.
On a more personal level, I also learnt a lot, being forced out of my comfort zone and in the end almost running a clinic where you see fifty patients a day. In the UK, you’d be seeing maybe four patients daily, here it’s more 30 to 40, so my clinical knowledge improved significantly. I 100% feel that I am a better nurse after this experience. The ability I developed to work with different people, and to be open and flexible is extremely valuable back in London where I work with patients from diverse backgrounds.
I now consider myself a strong advocate for health partnerships. I have already encouraged other colleagues within the NHS who want to work overseas that this is the best way to do it. A lot of nurses feel the appeal of working with organisations like MSF, which is of course a very valuable frontline aid service. But health partnerships are amazing because they enable sustainable service transformation.
I now consider myself a strong advocate for health partnerships. I have already encouraged other colleagues within the NHS who want to work overseas that this is the best way to do it.
Emma Gilbert - Mental Health Nurse
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