A spike in mental health cases has been noticed in Rwanda among the survivors of the 1994 genocide which took place against the Tutsi ethnic group.
Although an increase in depression and other mental disorders are reported every year around April coinciding with the anniversary of the genocide, experts said the latest spike has links with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also fueled anxiety.
In just 100 days in 1994, about 800,000 people mostly belonging to the Tutsi minority community were killed in Rwanda by ethnic Hutu extremists.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Dr. Jean Damascene Iyamuremye, director of the psychiatric care unit at the Rwanda Biomedical Center said the COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health cases as it has triggered fear and anxiety in the population.
The latest data indicates that the prevalence of depression among genocide survivors was at 35.6%, compared to 11.9% in the general population.
Last year, at least 2,000 genocide survivors reported mental health issues just a month after the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, according to data from the Rwanda Biomedical Centre.
“There is also a link between mental health and individual welfare. Many people were financially affected by the pandemic. These social-economic factors such as loss of jobs which affected individual incomes explain the rise in mental health cases,” said Iyamuremye.
He added that the Rwanda Biomedical Center has worked with different stakeholders, including the Genocide Survivor’s Association (IBUKA) and the Association of Genocide Widows (AVEGA) to reach out to survivors with mental issues.
“The COVID-19 pandemic affected the general population but we understand how hard the genocide survivors were affected given other issues they were facing. But we are working together to support them, at least every village has got someone to follow them up,” he said.
Reaching out to mental health patients
Iyamuremyi said volunteers and community health workers were assigned to reach out and support survivors experiencing mental health issues.
“Given that the majority of them have mobile telephones, we encourage them to call and report their situation whenever they do not feel well, they can call the focal point persons at the village levels or report to district officials,” he said.
Iyamuremyi said efforts were underway to increase personnel capacity ahead of the upcoming 27th commemoration of the genocide.
“Persons with mental illness should try not to be left alone. They engage in different activities to keep themselves busy. They can try to connect with others on the phone. They are also advised to avoid rumors which may cause them anxiety,” he said.
He added that the common mental health issues experienced by genocide survivors included migraines, insomnia, extreme anxiety, and fear of death among others.
Naphtal Ahishakiye, the executive secretary of IBUKA – an umbrella organization of genocide survivors – said volunteers have been asked to follow and monitor those suffering from mental illness.
He said restrictions due to the lockdown made it difficult for some survivors to access the treatment. Those who used to participate in group therapies were also unable to continue treatment, according to IBUKA.
Iyamuremye said mental health needs more funding to effectively coordinate different activities such as treatment and prevention, fighting associated stigma as well as awareness campaigns.