Suicides on record high among S. Sudanese refugees in Uganda

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According to a report by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the number of suicides and suicide attempts among South Sudanese refugees living in settlements in Uganda have doubled in 2019 compared to the previous year, with 97 suicide attempts and 19 deaths.

More than 2 million South Sudanese, most of them women and children, have fled their homeland to escape a brutal conflict between the government and opposition parties. Forty percent of them live in Uganda. Many have witnessed or experienced attacks, sexual abuse and torture either at home or during their escape.

Although suicide is also a common issue in the general population in northern Uganda, the increase among refugees in places like Bidibidi settlement illustrates a growing problem: the dire need for mental health-care services for people who have fled crisis, lost support networks and struggled to make a living in their country of asylum.

A 2018 joint assessment by UNHCR and partner organizations found that 19% of refugee households in northern Uganda reported at least one family member suffered psychological distress or felt afraid.

Fewer than half of the respondents said the affected family member had access to psychosocial care, such as individual counselling, group therapy and meditation.

There are few suicide prevention programmes like the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO), which was run by a local non-governmental organization, with support from UNHCR. The organization reached 9,000 refugees and local Ugandans in and around Bidibidi settlement last year, counselling them on how to manage negative thoughts, engage in social activities, and reach out for help.

It also ran programmes to help eliminate the stigma associated with mental health, trained health-care providers and deployed community-based counsellors.

UNHCR and its partners secured only 40% of the US$927 million needed to assist refugees and host communities in Uganda in 2019. With such limited funding, TPO and other organizations delivering mental health and psychosocial support reached only 29% of South Sudanese refugees in need of its services and even a smaller percentage of local community members.

The outlook for 2020 funding is not promising, and it will be impossible to support effective mental health programmes – or even identify who needs help – without more money from governments, the private sector and other donors.

According to a recent UNHCR briefing on this issue, key factors contributing to a higher rate of suicide included incidents of sexual and gender-based violence, traumatic events both before fleeing the home country and after arriving at a refugee settlement, extreme poverty, and lack of meaningful access to education and jobs.

Knowing few people in their new countries contributed to refugees’ feelings of isolation and helplessness.

Host communities are also dealing with cases of mental health problems.

According to the 2018 joint study, 27% of households in northern Uganda reported that at least one family member suffered from psychological distress.

“They have much in common with refugees from South Sudan,” said Charles Olaro, Director of Curative Services at Uganda’s Ministry of Health.

“They have also gone through decades of brutal wars, multiple displacement, epidemics, deprivation and generations of untreated trauma.” (Source: Relief Web)

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