Hope and healing for survivors of South Sudan conflict
A clinical psychologist with LWF Uganda provides psychosocial support to refugees and host communities
(LWI) - Over the past decade, thousands of South Sudanese refugees have fled into neighboring Uganda to escape from violent conflicts throughout the country. Many suffer from despair after losing relatives and property while facing an uncertain future, developing depression and trauma-related disorders.
The coronavirus pandemic has compounded problems for these people, with a second wave of COVID-19 spreading fast, including in refugee settlements, and a subsequent total lockdown announced by the government in June. Many doctors and therapists are under pressure to expand services for clients who need mental health care more than ever before. Josephine Nangonzi, a 30-year-old clinical psychologist, working with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Palorinya settlement in the West Nile subregion, is one such therapist, providing mental health and psychosocial support for refugees and host communities.
“The number of people seeking mental health services has drastically increased,” Nangonzi says. “There is already post-conflict trauma, and now the fear of contracting and dying from COVID-19 is another.” Nangonzi, who works with LWF Uganda, worries about contracting COVID-19, but hers is a story of resilience, commitment, passion and service.
Josephine Nangonzi, clinical psychologist with LWF Uganda.
Her day starts at 5am with prayers and preparations. She spends much of her time in individual or group therapy sessions with refugees, many of whom are referrals from various health centers and protection teams. “The impact of our work is not always immediate, but it is very worthwhile,” Nangonzi explains.
There are so many people experiencing similarly difficult situations, yet meeting them individually is almost impossible, given the limited workforce in the settlements. “The clients in group therapy sessions share ideas and solutions on how to solve their challenges. People tend to think that no one understands their situation, but when they hear another person telling a worse story, it gives some comfort and makes the person feel stronger,” she adds. Those who are not comfortable with group therapy sessions are considered for individual meetings.
Some of Nangonzi’s clients have recovered from COVID-19, while others may be carrying the virus, so she has to do everything possible to protect herself. Protective gear, including a face mask and shield, is a must-have during her interactions. Her clients, too, must ensure they minimize the spread of the virus, adhering to standard operating procedures such as wearing masks, social distancing and frequent handwashing.
COVID is a lonely place
Despite this, her fears and anxiety were ever-present ahead of her first counselling session with COVID-19 patients in June this year. “It is scary, but at that moment, what was running through my head was if I could do something, however small, to help these people live through another day,” she says. COVID is “a lonely place” for those that have contracted it, leading to separation from families and friends, the loss of social connections and often a loss of hope.
Colleagues also warned of the risks of working with COVID-19 patients. “One of the medical doctors at the center asked me: Do you know what you are getting yourself into? Do you know how dangerous this thing is? But in my head, I am thinking if you can follow the precautions and visit all those COVID victims, then why not me?” she recollects.
Healing is both physical and psychological. One may feel better after receiving medication, but are they healed mentally?
Many people who have contracted COVID-19 have recovered from the virus. But for Nangonzi, there is much she can still do to support individuals and the wider community. “Healing is both physical and psychological,” she notes. “One may feel better after receiving medication, but are they healed mentally? I feel that giving counselling to COVID-19 victims is the right thing to do.” Family acceptance, she notes, is an important source of strength for many COVID-19 sufferers.
At the end of the day, Nangonzi’s best moment is when someone comes back and says “you helped me to avoid making wrong decisions.” The worst moment, she adds, “is when you feel you are not going anywhere with your client and you wonder, what is it that I am not doing right, what is this client not telling me?”
Nangonzi grew up in Kyotera district, a rural setting in central Uganda, where people with mental illnesses were treated as outcasts. This experience nurtured her desire and her passion to be part of the solution. “I wanted to be a doctor, but when that didn’t work out, a friend told me about psychology and that it involved treating people,” Nangonzi recalls. Before joining LWF, she worked at Butabika National Referral Hospital, providing mental health care.
Like most of us, Josephine Nangonzi looks forward to a day when the world will return to normal and she will be able to proceed with her wedding plans, postponed indefinitely due to the ongoing pandemic. She is equally eager to be reunited with her family whom she has not seen for a long period. But for now, she has a long queue of patients waiting at the LWF-supported Ukuni III health center where she spends her days giving hope and a future to those who need it most.
By LWF Uganda/LYDIA NAMIRIMO BAKUMPE, Protection Advisor
LWF Uganda’s Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) program targets over 72,000 people in 21 refugee settlements in the West Nile region. It gives priority to the most vulnerable persons in urgent need of mental health and psychosocial support services.