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Health Education


Mental health and physical exercise – Key to resilience during COVID-19 pandemic.

As we celebrate the World Mental Health Week 2020, I am certain that most of us are in a total lock down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unprecedented measures to slow and interrupt transmission of COVID-19 are buying us time and reducing pressure on our health systems, but at a significant social and economic cost. Physical distancing and isolation measures, the closure of schools and workplaces, are particularly challenging us as they affect what we love to do, where we want to be, and who we want to be with.

It is absolutely natural for each of us to feel stress, anxiety, fear, depression and loneliness during this time. As a mental health advocate, I do consider the consequences of COVID-19 on our mental health and psychological well-being to be very important.

I believe you already know that an inactive lifestyle contributes to chronic miseries such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and an earlier death. You may also be one of the third of us who’ve recently resolved to exercise more especially now that majority of us are still in a lock down and have so much time to ourselves.

But how often do we consider the contribution of physical exercise to our mental health?

Rates of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are currently at a high record in most countries and this is because of increasing social isolation, poor diets, joblessness, inactivity and domestic violence among others. However, most studies have proved that exercise is generally comparable to antidepressants for patients with major depressive disorder while participants in a two-week exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity.

Exercise is well known to stimulate the body to produce Endorphins, endorphins are a chemical in the brain associated with positive mood) and encephalitis, the body’s natural feel-good hormones which can make problems seem more manageable. The simple act of focusing on exercise can give us a break from current concerns and depending on the activities we do, we may benefit from calming exercises, be energized, and get outside, all of which are known to improve mood and general health.

The breakdown of muscle tension through exercise can improve sleep and decrease physical pain and discomfort associated with depression and anxiety. It also improves in self-esteem, a feeling of accomplishment and feelings of self-worth and an interruption of cycles of negative thoughts and rumination.

Besides physical exercise, each and every one of us is part of a community. It is our human nature to care for one another, as we, in turn, seek the social and emotional support of others. The disruptive effects of COVID-19 provide us all with an opportunity. An opportunity to check on each other, to call and video-chat, to be mindful and sensitive to the unique mental health needs of those we care for. Our anxiety and fears should be acknowledged and not be ignored, but better understood and addressed by individuals, communities, and governments.

We have to learn ways in which we can manage and handle the different stressful situations unfolding so rapidly in our lives and communities. Here we can draw on the remarkable powers of strength, resilience and cooperation that we as humans fortunately possess.

Personally, I am trying to stick to what has worked for me in the past when I want to be calm. For example, learning and practicing simple relaxation techniques (like breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation) can all be very helpful in alleviating bodily and mental distress. I also try and acknowledge upsetting thoughts when they occur and discuss them with people around me. They are likely to have them too and we may be better able to find solutions collectively. Let’s try to stay positive.

I have realized that as a woman, sister, colleague and leader, it is now that I most need to display empathy, solidarity, emotional intelligence and to walk-the-talk to leave no-one behind.

Ultimately there is only one solution: act with kindness, act with love, but keep in mind that physical exercise, social distancing, washing your hands is important and lastly, do not forget to dispose off your used mask the right way.

Thank you very much.

Rebecca A. Cherop

Cc: Justine Kyobutungi 


Domestic violence as a cause to mental illness

Violence against women is becoming an increasingly public issue across Africa. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), violence affects millions of women globally.

Violence against women goes beyond beatings. It includes forced marriages, dowry-related violence, marital rape, sexual harassment, intimidation at work and in educational institutions, forced pregnancy, forced abortions, forced sterilization and forced prostitution. Such practices cause trauma, injuries and death. Female genital cutting, for example, is a common cultural practice in different parts of Africa and cause bleeding and infection, urinary incontinence, difficulties in child birth and death.

Physical and emotional abuse is not only distressing, psychologically damaging and increases women’s risk of developing a mental illness. According to WHO, one in three women has suffered physical violence since the age of 15.  The demographic health survey (2014) found that 45% of women in Kenya and 58.4% of women in Uganda have experienced emotional, physical and sexual violence. This normally occurs when a partner or someone close seeks to gain psychological and emotional control of the woman by demeaning her, controlling her actions, being verbally abusive and intimidating to her.

Physical and emotional abuse is not only distressing. It is psychologically damaging, increases women’s risk of developing a mental illness condition including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide. It has been discovered that the odds of experiencing PTSD is about seven times higher for women who had been victims of domestic violence than those who had not. The likelihood of developing depression was 2.7% greater, anxiety 4% greater, alcohol and drug misuse 6% greater and 3.5% greater for suicidal thoughts and attempts which clearly shows the impact it has on domestic violence victims.

Women who have been abused are likely to suffer depression, anxiety or severe conditions of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder than other women, according to research. However, helping women leave violent relationships will also help children who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence. It is paramount that we combine the support for both women and children, and that children are not left out of the support and counseling offered to victims of domestic violence.

While there is still much we can do to ensure we are properly supporting women and children who have experienced abusive relationships, we can start by working to bridge the gap between anti-violence advocates, mental health professionals, and substance abuse workers. This will create a more cohesive and helpful frameworks in which we can better address every issue and potential consequence of domestic violence. Knowing that these issues are so closely combined can better help us alleviate some potential traumatic effects that children also face, ideally helping them better adjust and avoid harmful consequences.