By Natasha Diana and Kukundakwe Shinah
The Covid-19 lockdown which started in March 2020 altered the normal functioning of institutions like schools, businesses, churches, among others in the country.
The norm that medical students once knew for attending school, going to work, meeting with friends and family, suddenly came to a standstill with reality becoming an online phenomenon.
While speaking to Emmanuel Buntu, a student of Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery, he informed us that the normally hectic learning process at the Medical School, was only worsened by the lockdown.
“Before the lockdown, we were only given surface introductions on course units and the rest of the work was supposed to be self-directed learning with accessibility to reading materials and friends to discuss with. However, the lockdown worsened the situation since we couldn’t access the necessary information because most of us were in villages with poor network and no libraries.”
Based on Dr. Benedict Akimana’s “Your mental health during the Covid pandemic!” effects of the pandemic include stress, anxiety, depression, adjustment disorder and psychosis.
Stress has been defined as the psychological, physiological and behavioral response by an individual when they perceive a lack of equilibrium between the demands placed upon them and their ability to meet those demands, which, over a period of time, leads to ill-health. (Palmer, 1989)
Uganda is ranked among the top six countries in Africa in rates of depressive disorders (4.6%; Miller et al, 2020), while 2.9% live with anxiety disorders (WHO, 2017).
Medical students have not been spared from the effects of the lockdown as Buntu confessed to having been one of the victims of stress.
Aside from the fact that the lockdown imparted stress upon the students, they were not in position to fully attain knowledge regarding their course since its practicability couldn’t be experienced online.
“We are given simulation training in surgery,” This isn’t practical. These are just videos yet the course requires hands on” Buntu cried out.
Asasira Ignatius, the President of the Medical school said students’ stress could also be attributed to the fact that by the time they returned from the lockdown, their academic workload had increased.
More so, their mental challenges were intensified by fears of being at risk of getting infected by covid-19 or spreading the infection to their loved ones.
In a bid to address the challenges that came up during the lockdown, the Makerere University Counseling Department extended its services to online platforms through Zoom and Google meet as a mechanism to reach its patients.
“It will be important for health systems to design digital innovation to redesign inpatient and ambulatory care delivery now and in the future, as we transition from clinical surge to a recovery phase,” says Dr. Benedict.
The Makerere University counselors Rosemary Nalwanga and Evelyn Konen shared with us an
insight of their experience about the online counselling as they said; “We usually conduct virtual counseling sessions with medical students and in most cases it’s because they are strained since they are in a pool of A students and pressured which leads to mental health breakdown.”
Despite the fact that the university has nine colleges, there are only three university counselors meant to address the various issues students are faced with yet the number of students seeking mental health treatment increased after the lockdown.
“We’ve seen an increase in students with more formal psychiatric illnesses such as depression, bipolar disease and anxiety disorders,” explained Evelyn Konene also a counselor at Makerere University
According to Dr. Benedict Akimana a psychiatrist and mental health advocate at Mindlab Uganda says the reports of people seeking professional help post the Covid 19 lockdown has increased significantly, almost doubling the initial number.
“There was an increase in people looking for treatment since most of them have lacked progress in their academics, lost friends and relatives to the illness, lost income that led them to have depression, anxiety and adjustment disorders,” he added.
Similarly, Professor Noeline Nakasujja from the College of Health Sciences acknowledged that indeed the Covid-19 lockdown was bound to cause a lot of stress to students.
Therefore, there ought to be career guidance classes for students right from A’ level to prepare them for medical school Professor Noeline emphasises as she says;
“Students in A’ level need to be informed and guided through what actually happens at medical school and be mentally ready for this course. This course requires bravery even in the later days of their career they know there isn’t any lightness.”
While grappling with the impacts of the lockdown period, medical students resolved to formulate care groups—catholic fellowships where they discussed and strengthened each other against mental health challenges.
Counselors advise students to approach the mental health in its earlier stages before its extreme to handle, normalize counseling sessions because it’s normal and should feel a need to shy away from it while Primary and Secondary schools should also prepare students with necessary career guidance and create awareness of what awaits them.