Addressing The Mental Wellbeing Of South Sudanese Refugees In Uganda

Curious students peering into a classroom in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement.

In 2013, one of the most damaging and violent civil wars in history erupted in South Sudan. The conflict saw 2.2 million people displaced from their homes, fleeing violence, persecution, and forced child recruitment to war. 40% of these South Sudanese people were forced to flee across the border in Uganda, which still hosts 927,823 people, 237,787 of whom live in the United Nations’ Bidibidi Refugee Settlement.

Challenges in Bidibidi are numerous, including insufficient housing, food supplies, electricity, and a lack of basic resources and services. The settlement’s huge size, its high population, and its over-stretched healthcare system can leave many people’s medical needs unattended. One such need is mental health.

New research conducted by Simbi Foundation’s Think Tank has helped bring together disparate and minimal information about the state of mental wellbeing in this context into a unified literature review, recently published in the Canadian Journal of Undergraduate Research. In this research — conducted by Think Tank member and UBC Behavioral Neurosciences and Medicine student Deea K. Dev — the barriers to mental wellbeing were made starkly clear.

The condition of a classroom in Bidibidi offers a glimpse of the limited resources available.

Mental Health Concerns in Uganda’s Refugee Settlements

Undoubtedly, the trauma of abandoning a war-torn home and seeking refuge in a new environment has had a detrimental influence on refugee mental health. Other factors influencing refugees’ mental health include sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), poverty, and traumatic events occurring before and after escaping their home country.

These factors can present vast psychological responses. Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were just some of the most prevalent mental health concerns resulting from these difficult circumstances. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and partner organizations reported 19% of refugee households in northern Uganda had at least one family member who suffered psychological distress.

One of the many issues associated with poor mental health is its correlation with setbacks in education. Studies show loss of attention and processing in individuals with psychiatric symptoms — an explanation for school absences and dropout rates.

Where to Go From Here: Deea’s Recommendations

Deea’s goal when developing her literature review was to raise awareness about the gaps in mental health support interventions across refugee settlements in Uganda.

Her first recommendation is introducing mental health literacy programs to help empower refugees. If refugees have better access to quality education on mental disorders they will be equipped to manage their personal mental health concerns with coping mechanisms and knowledge on when to seek help.

Deea also suggests that further mental health research be conducted in smaller South Sudanese refugee settlements near Bidibidi Settlement. Since the majority of her research findings and the humanitarian initiatives reported came from Bidibidi, understanding concerns in smaller communities is crucial for directing necessary support interventions.

The Think Tank: A Research Based Approach

So, what does this research mean for Simbi Foundation? Our projects are all informed by robust research. When Deea or other researchers from our Think Tank provide us with their findings, we work to implement their recommendations to ensure that we are taking sensitive and sustainable steps to provide a meaningful impact.

Deea’s research that demonstrates the benefits of accessible mental health education for refugees is reflected in our initiatives to enhance access to education in remote and refugee communities. Through the direction recommended by Deea’s research, we can aim to ensure that mental health support resources are available on Simbi Learn Cloud and can be accessed using BrightBox technology.

A learner exploring Simbi Learn Cloud in the BrightBox classroom at Yoyo Central School.

Symbiosis Through Mutually Beneficial Research

Deea’s research has reinforced our core ideology of symbiosis. Highlighted in our very name “Simbi” Foundation, our core goal is to foster mutually beneficial relationships. Our Think Tank provides academics and professionals of various disciplines and experiences with mutually-beneficial outlets for their research.

Considering Deea’s research for instance; alongside progressing her academic credentials, her work can be integrated into our organizational programming, forming the foundations for sustainable, locally-relevant projects that create a positive impact in the areas where we work. We are so proud to witness the mutually-beneficial outcome of Deea’s work.

Learn more about our Think Tank and apply to join our impactful approach to research!

Think Tank researcher, Deea Dev.

Click here to read Deea Dev’s literature review.

Written by Emily Messmer

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