Peak in cases of mental disorders among genocide survivors

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KIGALI from Rwanda

A peak of mental health cases was noted in Rwanda among survivors of the 1994 genocide which took place against the Tutsi ethnic group.

Although an increase in depression and other mental disorders is reported every year around April, coinciding with the anniversary of the genocide, experts said the latest peak has links to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also fueled anxiety.

In just 100 days in 1994, around 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 COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health cases because it triggered fear and anxiety in the population.

The latest data indicates that the prevalence of depression among genocide survivors was 35.6%, compared to 11.9% in the general population.

Last year, at least 2,000 genocide survivors reported mental health issues just one month after the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, according to data from the Rwanda Biomedical Center.

“There is also a link between mental health and individual well-being. Many people have been financially affected by the pandemic. These socio-economic factors such as the loss of jobs which have affected individual incomes explain the increase in mental health cases, ”said Iyamuremye.

He added that the Rwanda Biomedical Center has worked with different stakeholders including the Association of Genocide Survivors (IBUKA) and the Association of Genocide Widows (AVEGA) to reach survivors with mental health issues.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the general population, but we understand how affected genocide survivors were given the other issues they faced. But we are working together to support them, at least every village has someone to follow them, ”he said.

Reaching out to mental health patients

Iyamuremyi said volunteers and community health workers have been assigned to reach and support survivors with mental health issues.

“Since the majority of them have cell phones, we encourage them to call and report their situation whenever they are not feeling well, they can call the focal points at the village level or report to them. district officials, ”he said.

Iyamuremyi said efforts are underway to increase staff capacity ahead of the upcoming 27th genocide commemoration.

“People 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 over the phone. They are also advised to avoid rumors which could cause them anxiety, ”he said.

He added that common mental health issues faced 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 people with mental illness.

He said restrictions due to the lockdown have made it difficult for some survivors to access treatment. According to IBUKA, those who participated in group therapy were also unable to continue treatment.

Iyamuremye said that mental health needs more funds to effectively coordinate different activities such as treatment and prevention, combating associated stigma as well as awareness campaigns.

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