A group of people sit on blankets under a tree during a community mental health awareness session in South Sudan
South Sudan

Mental health specialist: ‘Not all wounds are visible’

Dorothy Namara is a Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Specialist for Humanity & Inclusion’s South Sudan program.

With a master’s degree in clinical psychology, Dorothy has held a variety of MHPSS roles within the organization since 2018, when she first began working in her home country of Uganda. Always eager to take on a new challenge, Dorothy shares the needs, highlights, and challenges of taking on such an important role. Below, Dorothy shares her experience as a mental health specialist for Humanity & Inclusion in South Sudan.

Q: What are your daily responsibilities?

I engage in a variety of activities depending on what is planned for a given month. I provide technical support for the mental health projects in the program, provide capacity building trainings, and ensure quality assurance to make sure the mission’s MHPSS programs are in line with Humanity & Inclusion’s global standards. I also represent the organization externally and provide an MHPSS lens for stakeholder activities.

I also have to take into account the different mental health emergencies that arise from the project sites. They may not come up every day, but when they do, I give them priority.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

Positive change! Seeing the smile on a person’s face is very rewarding. I wake up every day looking forward to it. I love seeing the transition from their first meeting to their last meeting, and watching them develop positive coping strategies about life amidst adversity. It gives me courage, especially when I see persons with disability. I’m a person with disability myself, so I take a lot of pride in seeing these changes.

Q: What is unique about the context of the South Sudan program?

South Sudan is a very unique context. It has diverse cultures and languages that spread across 10 states. Each of the cultures has its own practices and dynamics that you have to understand before introducing an intervention or project. Community acceptance is key to a project’s success, and not everything that has worked elsewhere works in South Sudan.

You may wake up in the morning ready to go to work, then you encounter a security situation and cannot do what you had planned. You may also have to organize counseling sessions around other projects that participants are involved in, such as cash for work. So, you really have to be flexible and take things one day at a time. Every day has its own unique context.

Personally, I embrace it positively. It gives me the opportunity to think outside of the box and ask myself: How can I best empower the team to accommodate changes positively and move on without being frustrated? It gives me a learning point to embrace the context, embrace the culture and appreciate the people, so for me, it’s very positive.

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Q: What are the greatest needs?

We have traumatized populations that are constantly in conflict. Today there may be conflict in one place, another day you will find it somewhere else. We see a lot of trauma cases. Depression, PTSD, anxiety, domestic violence and suicide are all common. Alcohol and substance abuse are particularly common. We also see a lot of protection cases, such as early child marriages and gender-based violence.

Mental health needs to be addressed as part of the bigger pictures of health and protection—especially when it comes to the most at-risk populations, including persons with disability. This population really needs support because most of the time they are left behind. This is why I’m really happy with Humanity & Inclusion’s advocacy efforts. We’re able to create awareness among our partners about mainstreaming disability in their programs, but more support is needed.

Q: What do you wish more people knew about your work?

People should know that the diversification of mental health projects, by including skill development, livelihood initiatives and income-generating activity has a greater impact and results on the psychological wellbeing of the population. For example, coupling mental health with livelihood projects works wonders. Whenever someone is able to get their mind settled, and then you give them a skill to make a living, it empowers them to maintain their coping strategies. They cope better. If they come to the sessions and talk about their stressors, and then they go back home and sleep hungry, this will bring them back to the same situation they were talking about in-session.

There are not many MHPSS actors in South Sudan. South Sudan is a huge country, and mental health coverage is just a drop in the ocean. We can only do as much as our funding can cover. Because mental health is not a tangible thing that entices donor funds, there are very few that really invest in mental health. When you build 10 schools, they are physically there and are visible. But, when you have group counseling sessions with 500 mothers or 200 children, it’s hard to see the evidence until donors can hear participants share the benefits. It’s really a challenge.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?

We appreciate those that have been able to fund the cause of Humanity & Inclusion in South Sudan. We call upon them to continue, because mental health is not a one-day change. It is a process. For a mental health project to be effective, we need years of implementation to document tangible, more permanent changes and see more of the community benefit.

Everyone is a candidate for mental illness. Anyone can be affected at any time. No one chooses these illnesses. We cannot predict that one day there will be no mental health issues. There are very many stressors in the environment that can cause them, just like any other health-related illness.

Lastly, it is important that we not forget the link to people facing specific hardships, including people with disability who are disproportionately affected. At Humanity & Inclusion, we believe that every life matters, and there is no health without mental health. It is important to invest in mental health and psychosocial support, because not all wounds are visible.

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