Hug that Little Girl
"I felt the way I did the day I donned my first pair of glasses." First chapter of a blogpost series by Lindsey Kukunda on her way to menta…
Mental health and the conversations on it must be ready to stand in the face of society and demand a place. Especially in this digital age where audience reach is magnified.
In a world where mental illness has been presented as something to be ashamed of, it is no wonder people don’t speak up. But in being open and loud about mental health, we give voices to the voiceless. We also expose the fact that mental illness is real and can affect any of us.
Therefore, unadulterated-truthful advocacy is needed. This is what Rita Auma is doing. Rita is a lawyer, a mental health advocate and an author of Dear Me, a book about her experiences with trauma, depression and suicide. Through her experiences, Rita started a heart-to-heart community which utilizes digital spaces in the advocacy for mental health. I had a chat with her and this is what she had to say.
What is heart-to-heart?
It’s a mental health community with a social media presence on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Through vlogs the community teaches people about mental health and mental illness. The ultimate plan is to have different physical heart-to-heart safe spaces in every district existing within the overall online safe space. For now, the digital space is more accessible and works to grow the community.
Impact of heart-to-heart
When I talk to someone that has reached out, because I have been there, I can recognize where someone is at and can offer them emotional support and even push them forward to therapy. In most cases, I have actually had to pay for the therapy, for at least the first three sessions which makes a difference in some one’s life. Digital spaces also make it easier to identify sometimes that someone needs help - I can see a tweet and know the subtext in there and recognize that this person needs this type of help.
To that effect, I have a list of different therapists and psychiatrists that I can recommend because I have been in the system for a while. I have also had mental health advocates seeking to be part of heart-to-heart which magnifies the advocacy of mental health needs.
What are the processes involved in the content for the vlogs?
A lot of people reach in on social media. Digital spaces help me get feedback from which I get the content to be shared. The issues heart-to-heart covers are also things happening to me and my surroundings.
When I choose a topic, I just speak from the heart. The reason is that when you look at the way therapy is approached; it is that people are talking at you. I was fortunate enough that my first therapist had gone through depression so she wasn’t talking at me but with me.
Why is openness important to the mental health landscape in Uganda?
I went through life mentally ill and I knew that there was something wrong. I knew that my relationship with pain, cutting myself and death was not normal. But there was no one talking about it. In truth, if I would have gotten information earlier, I would have got help earlier because no one wants to live life ill.
Even though being open still gives me anxiety, I put it in my head that I’m going to be deliberate and open about what I’m saying. Because I know that my word is bigger than my fears and I want someone to know that there is help.
Why video blogs?
I wanted to show there’s no shame to it and end the stigma so people can feel brave to come out.
Is it easier to share your story on a video blog than face-to-face interaction?
It’s actually easier for me to share on like a conference because there I just imagine everyone naked. And also, I used to be a dancer so I’m familiar with the stage. But with digital spaces, it hits everybody at a different hour, so you are constantly in that space of anxiety. It’s nerve wrecking waiting for people’s reactions!
What more digital spaces can be used?
I see heart-to-heart getting into more digital spaces, like having online group sessions on Zoom. For now, the plan for 2021 is to increase the physical and online sessions, and have fundraisers to help support the work because it's costly and there are very few people who believe in it.
What are you doing now that you wish had been available when you were first experiencing mental illness?
I am speaking up. I’m being loud about it. I am doing outreach programs where I’m able to help people access services and heart-to-heart funds them because there is nothing like affordable therapy in Uganda. I’m encouraging and mentoring other people to talk about mental health. The conviction for me is that I have been that person who needed help.
Why do you feel the language of suicide needs to change?
People are less accepting of the brain to be ill as opposed to other body parties. When the brain is ill and someone succumbs to that, society has decided that that’s a crime and yet nobody “commits cancer”! So, when the language changes, maybe the generations after us will be more accepting and will find better solutions.
How was the experience of writing Dear Me?
I had a mental breakdown. After I had finished the first draft of my book, that was the season I had to go to Butabika Hospital as an in-patient for two months. I just sent the book for editing and up to now I can’t read the book from cover to cover. It takes time to face your own pain.
Advice to people dealing with mental illness
Start telling your story however small. There is somebody listening on the other side. Someone might be helped by you telling your story.