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From the Inside Out: Ugandan mothers heal from depression and poverty

Irene, far right, and other members of the mental health group show their handmade handbags.

Written by Tatum Bergen

Angella never expected to become a widow, divorcée, and single mom to five children and four grandchildren, all within a few years. Her husband died in 2006, leaving her to raise three children on her own. She remarried in an effort to secure financial stability for her children and two new step daughters, but the new marriage quickly ended, leaving her alone, again. She knows first-hand how mental health can affect every aspect of one’s life.

Have you ever wondered what poverty feels like?

Poverty is more than material lack—it’s physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational. If, like Angella, you’ve experienced broken relationships, you’ve also had a taste of it. Brokenness, by nature, hurts.

Poverty can feel hopeless and lonely; it can fill you with shame and tell you that you are worthless. It wears not only on the body, but also on the mind. That’s what happened to Angella. She became known for her angry outbursts, and her children became bullied in school, forcing them to drop out. In hopes of a better life, her daughters married young but their marriages failed. They left their four children in Angella’s care and went to find work in the city—putting more pressure on Angella.

“I was so depressed, felt left alone, felt like no one could understand my situation and how I felt because most of them would judge me,” she remembers.

It’s no surprise that those experiencing physical poverty are one-and-a-half to three times more likely to suffer from mental health illnesses than the affluent. Their economic situation can cause increased worries and uncertainties, trauma and violence, and social isolation. Women who are mothers have even more pressures on their mental health. Mothers often carry the burden of housekeeping, child raising, caring for aging parents, and, in the case of single moms like Angella, solely providing for the family. As a result, there’s a 45 per cent difference in the rates of high levels of depression between mothers and the general population. And it creates a vicious cycle of poverty and poor health for generations.

For Angella, poverty led to depression, and depression led to greater poverty. When she lent the little she had to friends, they never returned her money and her generosity soured—bitterness tainted her relationships, turned to hatred, and dark thoughts took control of her mind.

One day, after an intense argument with a neighbour, Angella contemplated ending her life. Her friends alerted her children, who stepped in to stop her. Recognizing the warning signs, a FH staff member quickly screened her for severe depression and connected her to a mothers’ mental health group.

An FH staff member of the mental health group screens a mother for depression.

FH Uganda created the mental health program specifically to help mothers like Angella, connecting them professional mental health services (like counselling) and giving them practical tools to manage stress. Mothers in these groups often name economic poverty as a major cause of their depression. To alleviate this stressor, FH Uganda provided them with livelihood training to empower them to change their financial circumstances and further strengthen their social support network.

In this environment, Angella learned to manage her symptoms of depression and control her anger. She learned that her life was valuable, and her self-esteem improved. Surrounded by women with common experiences, she realized she wasn’t alone.

“Together with the continuous counselling sessions, I was able to regain my self-esteem and realized that I was still an important person in society.”

Life began to change for Angella. After a series of counselling and livelihood training, she was able to earn a living, which improved her family’s health and nutrition. She learned to use the vegetables available to her to prepare healthy meals for her children and improve their nutrition. She even started saving money to buy her grandchildren’s school supplies—it all gave her a sense of purpose.

“I learned how best to care for children and this has helped me to take good care of mgrandchildren,” she smiles.

Angella learned how to make polythene paper handbags and mats, and now sells them, earning enough to feed her family and keep them healthy! Livelihood training like this empowers women, eliminates financial stress, gives them a sense of agency, and increases their sense of self worth.

Angella beams with pride at her new skills.

With poverty and mental health being so deeply connected, imagine the transformative power of providing communities with both the access to the mental health services they need and tools to get out of poverty.

Angella has experienced transformation from the inside out. Intervention was the first step; the next was being equipped with skills to improve her situation. Once she realized that she was valuable and capable, Angella saw a way out of her poverty.

“I no longer resent myself, even the suicidal thoughts no longer cross my mind,” she says. “I am now focused to work hard and make sure that my children are happy.”

When mothers are supported and confident, they feel capable of taking on new skills to meet their families’ needs. Problems no longer feel hopeless—they know the steps they can take to overcome them. They no longer feel shame, but know their value and worth. Rooted in community, they know they are not alone.

Their healing spreads to their children, marriages, and community. That’s the kind of healing Angella experienced. “I now feel better because of the support from FH, which has boosted my self-esteem. I have hope for more years of life.”

Her broken relationships, with herself, her neighbours, and her children, have been restored. In other words, she’s overcoming all forms of poverty.

Irene and her children at their home.

Irene’s Story

Like Angella, poverty took a toll on Irene’s mental health. After her daughter nearly died from sickle cell anemia and her husband left her to raise four daughters on her own, she felt neglected and lonely. “I became so desperate, traumatized, and felt God had forgotten me. I felt I was of no value anymore because I was thinking of ways to overcome the situation I was in but couldn’t find them.” Poverty left her with no options. Her low self-esteem distanced her from her relationships, and as time passed, she faced discrimination from her community.

When FH staff screened Irene for moderate depression she was enrolled in the mothers’ mental health program where she gained the tools to heal and a community to support her. She learned to grow nutritious food for her children and save money to provide for their needs.

“All this makes me feel at peace,” she smiles. 

Irene has experienced restoration, but not only for herself. Healing mentally has changed the way she cares for her children, treating them with patience and love, knowing they are a cherished gift from God. Irene has been set free from depression and is breaking the cycle of poverty and poor mental health for her children, too.

If your heart is moved by these women and their stories of resilience, you can give a gift to help more people heal from mental health challenges. 

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Food for the Hungry: From the Inside Out: Ugandan mothers heal from depression and poverty
From the Inside Out: Ugandan mothers heal from depression and poverty
Have you ever wondered what poverty feels like? These mothers in Uganda are overcoming depression and poverty with the help of a mental health group.
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Food for the Hungry
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