June 14, 2024

StrongMinds' mental health initiativesOften overlooked in the broader landscape of global health initiatives, mental health plays a pivotal role in shaping communities and individuals. With competing health and development priorities, mental health often takes the backseat, with more visible health ailments taking the stage. As of 2021, 66 million women suffer from depression and anxiety disorders in Africa, while 85% of women do not have access to treatment. With a firm grip on the complexities of mental health, StrongMinds’ mental health initiatives have fostered an inclusive environment where communities can address mental health in a culturally relevant way.

Specifically dedicated to addressing the frequently overlooked issue of depression, particularly impacting women in the region, StrongMinds sets itself apart as a singular organization scaling a cost-effective solution to the prevailing mental health challenges. Established in 2013, the organization operates strategically in Uganda and Zambia. What distinguishes StrongMinds is its dedication to the cause and its unique position as the sole organization implementing a scalable and cost-effective solution to the depression epidemic in Africa. Through partnerships and collaboration with NGOs and government entities, StrongMinds efficiently scales access to depression treatment, reaching communities utilizing a priceless resource — the community. 

The Borgen Project had the opportunity to speak with StrongMinds’ Acting Uganda Country Director, Vincent Mujune, who is actively involved in the organization’s mission. In the interview, Mujune delves into the inspiration behind StrongMinds’ exclusive focus on women, the vital role of community health volunteers, the importance of mental health in development, destigmatization strategies, the success of group therapy and the organization’s unique approach.

Impact of Depression on Women’s Lives

The foundation of StrongMinds is rooted in recognition of the staggering impact of depression on women’s lives – about twice as many women as men experience depression. “When a woman is depressed, she works less, she may experience physical ailments, and she will even disengage from her family and community. And when a woman is depressed, the negative outcomes can extend to her children, who are more likely to miss school or have poor physical and mental health themselves,” Mujune says.

Tailored Therapy and Women Empowerment

Mujune discussed how the benefit of tailored therapy for women stems much further than just the women themselves in the community, “Conversely, when a woman recovers from depression, our data show that she is able to work more, provide her children with more regular meals and schooling, and she will generally feel more connected to others in her community.” Women from StrongMinds’ mental health initiatives further reduce the stigmatization in the community by speaking out on their personal experiences with mental health and opening a space in which others can reach out to receive help. “We like to say that when a woman recovers from depression, she changes the world around her.”

The Role of Community Health Workers

StrongMinds’ mental health initiatives not only utilize health professionals to treat depression but also the community as a whole. The involvement of community members, mainly community health volunteers, is integral to the success of StrongMinds’ therapy model. “Through psychoeducation and awareness-raising, community members help create a safe space that reduces stigma and encourages women with depression to seek help. Social support is a crucial element to helping women overcome isolation and enhancing the overall effectiveness of group therapy,” Mujune explains. 

The Interconnectedness of Mental and Physical Health 

While infectious diseases are often pressing matters to address, StrongMinds brings awareness to the interconnectedness of both mental and physical health. Depression is linked bidirectionally with infectious diseases, impacting behaviors and adherence to health care. Addressing mental health contributes to overall development by breaking the cycle of poverty perpetuated by depression-induced limitations in education, job opportunities and economic participation. 

Overcoming the Stigmatization of Mental Health 

One of the most significant barriers to mental health is stigmatization in low-income countries where the same notion of mental health isn’t recognized as it is in the West. StrongMinds implements various strategies to relay the impact of mental health and the importance of speaking on the issue. Psychoeducation provided through mobilization and therapy efforts aims to educate individuals and communities about mental health disorders, fostering understanding and empathy. The organization extends psychoeducation to parents and teachers, creating a support network that aids recovery and reduces stigma at school and home.

Success and Impact 

Measuring the effectiveness of mental health can vary; in the context of StrongMinds’ group therapy programs, a successful outcome is defined by a clinically significant reduction in the “depression score” measured by the PHQ-9 depression screening tool. Approximately 75-85% of clients achieve a depression-free status by the end of therapy, as indicated by a minimal depression score. 

The success of group therapy is illustrated through countless impactful stories. Years after their treatment, women express gratitude for life-changing experiences. Some become volunteer peer therapy facilitators, leveraging their experiences to help others. The collaborative nature of group therapy empowers women to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers, leading to transformative outcomes such as starting businesses and turning their lives around.

Organizations like StrongMinds contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty perpetuated by untreated depression. The initiative creates a transformative domino effect that reaches families, communities and societies by changing individual lives. As Mujune emphasizes, “mental health is foundational to overall health and is a fundamental human right.” Mental health may display itself differently among communities; nevertheless, StrongMinds’ mental health initiatives have proven that finding solutions is possible, and its effects ripple into the community. The organization’s commitment to this principle promises even more significant positive change. The trajectory of StrongMinds invites anticipation and excitement as it continues to lead the way in mental health treatments, undoubtedly leaving a mark and inspiring other organizations on the global landscape.

– Bella Oliver-Steinberg
Photo: Flickr

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