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This young woman is changing the mental illness narrative in Africa

Liz Kakooza is a bubbly, articulate and fiercely focused young woman with a vision to change mental health treatment in Uganda. Having been properly diagnosed with depression at age 24, Kakooza has struggled with this debilitating condition for more than half of her life. The 26-year-old mother of one is a World Economic Global Shaper for Uganda and currently serves at the Curator for The Kampala Hub. She is also YALI Fellow 2017 and a LéO Africa Institute YELP Fellow. She is using her personal experience with depression to help others get timely intervention and help.

What I remember about growing up is the anger, cynicism and this deep sadness like an anchor dragging me down all the time. I would be feeling perfectly upbeat one minute and overwhelmed by sadness the next. Sometimes I was too sad or physically unwell to even get out of bed. Many people around me thought I was just lazy and pretending to be sick just to stay in bed.

As I grew up, the illness matured too until it could not be ignored. My teachers thought I was just being moody and plain difficult. They informed my parents who took me to hospital. When the doctors could not find any actual illness even though I was constantly in pain, they advised us to try counseling. At that point, there was no clear diagnosis given.

After years and years of pain and dealing with addictions, I received a diagnosis in 2015 aged 24.  It is this diagnosis that I believe saved my life. Because now I could at least know that I was not just crazy. I was put on medication and went for counseling regularly. After a while, I woke up one morning and felt lighter and better than I had in a very long time. I was ecstatic. It is amazing how much our minds want to forget the bad times. I convinced myself that I had outgrown the illness and I could finally do the one thing I always longed to do; live a normal life.

While on a course in the UK, I started experiencing pain again. I went to doctors who assured me there was nothing wrong with me. I kept changing doctors until one said he had finally discovered what the problem was. He said that even though I had been diagnosed with Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), an inflammation of one or more of your joints- earlier in life, it was as a result of my depression. All the pain and sickness I had endured for the past year were simply symptoms of the illness. To say I was distraught is an understatement. Just when I thought I had beaten it and was free, I found that this might be a lifelong struggle.

And it was during this particular depressing time that I started looking for all the small things I could be grateful for. I felt grateful that I, at least knew what was wrong with me knowing that thousands back home were struggling in ignorance and fear. This sobering and humbling realization gave me a big purpose – to empower others in my situation.  And that is how The Tumaini Foundation came to be. We want to tackle Mental Health challenges on the continent by creating an African approach and solutions to African problems. So far I have started some initiatives to help me raise funds for a mental wellness center where people can access services. I have done fundraising events and even approached some companies to be part of this very important yet neglected issue in our society. One of these events is the Girls Love Brunch scheduled for May 10th whose ultimate goal is for us to kick off The Tumaini Woman initiative through creating safe spaces and events like #GirlsLove events series where women can have a safe space to discuss mental health issues affecting them or those around them. We will have interactive sessions at the #GirlsLove Brunch  with a panel of women and a gentleman who have experienced mental health issues, those that work in the mental health space and how the community can be more inclusive of women especially dealing with mental health issues.

I believe more than ever that it is my calling to address the Mental Health crisis on the continent by changing perceptions which will be a stepping stone to improvement of health care services on the continent.

I use my blog to discuss mental health challenges. I believe it is through sharing stories such as her own that we will be able to #ChangeTheConversation around #MentalHealth.