It is Okay Not to be Okay: Mental Health in Uganda

17 October 2023|Rosette Komuhangi

I have had to muster courage and hitting rock bottom to admit that I’m not okay and need counselling. And quite frankly, I am proud of myself.
Andre Mutulu, counselling beneficiary

This was how Andre Mutulu (not his real name) opened the conversation when we talked about his recent experiences with group counselling at the JRS Uganda Satellite Office in Rubaga, a suburb of Kampala. 

Andre is an asylum seeker who has been living in Uganda since 2011. Andre came with his wife and one child, and she gave birth to two other babies in Uganda. Unfortunately, one died a year ago. 

Mutulu’s story is chilling, and he insisted that we publish the details if this would help someone somehow. His angle of us talking about his experience is to openly embrace the fact that Mental Health illnesses are a reality and that if not taken care of, one can deteriorate to alarming levels of becoming suicidal. He requested that I tell his story to others, particularly men, to know that it is okay not to be okay and to seek help. 

If I had not come to this counselling, I would probably be dead! I came to the JRS Office as the last hope and wasn’t expecting much. But I was too desperate for anything.
Andre Mutulu

Andre left Congo because he was accused of leading a political rebel group. He was arrested multiple times, and many of his close family and friends were killed for being associated with him. He decided to leave Congo because it became apparent that his life and the lives of close family members were at stake.  

The journey to Uganda was tough because they had a small child, his wife was pregnant, and his wife was sexually abused as they journeyed. When they reached Uganda, settling in was difficult since they did not know anyone to support them. 

In the first years of arriving and settling, one of their babies fell sick, and he was taken to a hospital where he was misdiagnosed and given the wrong medication, leading to his death! Then, the one child they travelled with to Uganda struggled with mental health issues because of the violence and torture she went through. These problems had a toll on Andre’s marriage, which he says almost dissolved, a problem that he thinks would have been disastrous to his already deteriorating sanity. 

According to Mutulu, his perpetrators still pursue him, and he often feels unsafe in Uganda. His family in Congo is still under political scrutiny, and some have also been arrested recently. As a political asylum seeker, Andre has been frustrated with his security since most of the offices in Uganda where he has been referred to do not seem to help because of the sensitivity of his case. 

Mutulu shares how he was plagued with persistent sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, negativity, irritability, frustration, and restlessness. He was diagnosed with clinical depression and checked into a rehabilitation center for several months. The drugs he was given had side effects like insomnia, lack of appetite, extreme body weakness, and nightmares, worsening his situation, so he had to get off them. This meant that the depression was not dealt with.  

While chatting with a friend about his problems, the friend recommended Andre to JRS for counselling. Andre laughed at the idea but jokingly agreed to attend. He says this was the best decision he has made so far! 


“When I entered the JRS office, I met Ms. Heavens Lamaro, a counsellor with JRS who listened to me with so much patience and grace that I wondered why she was kind! When you have psychological issues, you are skeptical about everyone, especially strangers! I had been so depressed and miserable and had forgotten what it meant to be treated with grace. But that action made me keen on going for the therapy she proposed.” – Andre


He was attached to a group therapy program for two and a half months. In these sessions, Andre could talk through his issues and realize that although his story differs from some group members, they all suffer in one way or another. 

When I started counselling with Mr. Joshua, I saw a big difference. I'm honest with what I'm telling you. I felt that I was helpless, useless, over-isolated.  I didn't want to be with people.  I had in me a spirit of revenge. And I used to overreact. But see me now, I am telling you all the stories like they are just a story!  
Andre Mutulu

According to Joshua Serwanja, the JRS Counsellor, clients are shown different ways of controlling stress.  The sessions teach individuals coping mechanisms and ways of managing the effects of trauma.  


“We show individuals ways to face their trauma and uncomfortable situations to the level where they put energy into healing and living meaningfully.” – Joshua


Joshua has also been impressed with Andre’s progress. He has seen him move from emotionally wounded to optimistic about living a life yet again.  

Andre is currently looking for employment or a business venture to earn income for his family.  Mutulu is full of positive vibes, and his enthusiasm is infectious and unmissable. He is enthusiastic about the future and hopes to help others suffering.  


I’ve reached a level to share with other peopleWhenever they come to me, they share with me their problems; I also advise them if you do this, you will see how better life becomes. I share what I learned and show them how they can also practice those exercises.”  – Andre


In the future, he hopes to become an advocate for refugees and raise his voice to talk about the suffering of refugees. Most importantly, he advises those suffering to seek help before it is too late because it is okay not to be okay.