Jeanette was in her final year of University in 2011. She was studying for a degree in Economics in Kampala and living with her family. During the last semester, as the pressure of her final exams was beginning to grow, Jeanette’s family started to notice that she was talking a lot and making funny comments about people. She was not making sense. This was very out of character for Jeanette, and her family became concerned. Jeanette herself felt very excited and energetic about life. She knew her exams were soon approaching, but instead of attending classes, she began to spend all day walking aimlessly, she couldn’t concentrate, in fact she was barely eating as she was so distracted.
As the weeks quickly passed, Jeanette soon realised that there was not enough time to study and she began to fear that she would not pass her exams. This led Jeanette to feel very stressed and anxious. So much so, she started crying and at times this could last all night. She was hardly sleeping. Her family became even more concerned. Her mood appeared to be swinging from one extreme to the other. At times she would feel powerful, she thought she would graduate soon. Other times she feared the exams and cried.
Throughout this time, Jeanette’s classmates called her, to find out where she was. Sometimes she would pick up, and say she was coming, but she knew this was a lie. Then Jeanette lost her phone.
As the weeks past, Jeanette’s family tried their best to cope alone. They tried to keep Jeanette inside by locking the house. However, Jeanette found the key and was able to get out. She felt she had important things she needed to do, and at times would return late at night. The neighbours were talking about Jeanette, because they too had noticed the change in her behaviour. Some believed she was pretending she was sick to avoid the exams. After four weeks, Jeanette’s father decided it was time to seek help. He said, “Jeanette, let’s go to see the doctor”. Jeanette agreed. She knew something was not right, but she didn’t know what.
At first, Jeanette spent 3 days at a nearby clinic. After having numerous tests, such as for malaria and finding nothing, the doctors advised her father to take her to Butabika, the National Psychiatry Referral Hospital. Jeanette’s father was receptive to this and brought Jeanette to the outpatient department. At Butabika, the doctors realised that Jeanette’s symptoms, of talkativeness, lack of sleep and personal neglect may all be symptoms of a mental health condition, called bipolar disorder. They told her father that Jeanette needed to have an injection and be admitted. Jeanette’s sister was not allowed to stay with her, and Jeanette felt scared when she arrived on the ward.
Jeanette spent 3 weeks in hospital. This was a challenging time, being separated from her family. She began to receive tablet medication. These medications reduced the symptoms, but led to feeling drowsy, and sleeping all day. During this time, Jeanette’s family visited regularly and one day they were able to take Jeanette home, provided she continued her medication and came back for review.
Although Jeanette now had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and was prescribed medication, the next five years of her life was interrupted by relapses and readmissions to hospital. Although she was able to complete her degree, she wasn’t able to progress further with her career. Jeanette denied her situation and refused to believe she needed medication. During this time, Jeanette would throw her medication away, and not come for her reviews. Even when she had money for transport, she would stop on the way. Jeanette’s family believed she was taking treatment and did not understand why she so frequently felt depressed, or overly energetic, or at times both.
In 2016, Jeanette was admitted to hospital and staying in the female recovery ward, when somebody approached her and asked her name. Jeanette was surprised when Angela introduced herself as a peer support worker. She had never heard of peer support before. Angela spoke to Jeanette for some time, she explained that she too had bipolar disorder, and offered to visit her at home.
From this point, Jeanette began to meet Angela every month. During these visits, Angela shared her story and experience of recovery. Through these meetings, Jeanette began to realise that she wasn’t alone. Angela had experienced challenges too, but she was still strong. This was life changing. Jeanette began to accept her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She realised her first episode at University was triggered by pressure to succeed in exams, and the feeling of missing support from her mother, who had passed away two years before. Looking back, Jeanette could see that she had not been able to grieve her mother’s death, instead feeling she had to stay strong for her family.
With this new understanding, Jeanette regretted the time she had wasted. She came to see that mental illness is like any other sickness. You can live with it usefully, without it being a hindrance to your success. From this point on, Jeanette began to take her medication. It took some time to see the benefit, but Jeanette believed that as it had worked for Angela, it would work for her.
Following this, Jeanette’s relapses decreased. In fact, she began to work as a peer support worker herself. This allowed her to offer the same support to others that she had received. She recalls one peer she supported. At first, she struggled to find him. Then, with the help of the LC chairman, she found him at his house, tired and sickly. Then Jeanette met the peer’s mother, who was rude, and did not accept her son was ill. However, with the help of the community outreach team from Butabika Hospital, Jeanette was able to sensitise the family to mental health problems, and transport was arranged for the peer to receive treatment in hospital. In the end, the mother was grateful, and this gave Jeanette the courage to continue her work. Now, after many years, Jeanette can see how vital peer support is. Her story is a powerful tool to share with people. Through peer support, people can begin to believe in themselves and build a structure to their lives that supports recovery.
Jeanette now believes the main problem is people hiding their challenges, instead of opening out and sharing. The tragedy is, people live with sickness, even though treatment is available. This is because of the stigma in society towards mental illness. How society treats people with mental illness affects how they think of themselves. Jeanette hopes for a future where there is more funding for mental health services and peer support in Uganda.