Using zumba to address mental health stigma


For moments they will look at you, studying you and maybe trying to figure out your intentions, however, when the music starts playing, there’s a unique way they light up and it is at that moment,” she says snapping her fingers and continuing, “you notice that a positive energy has been ignited.”

Geraldine Opoka, a zumba dance instructor can never have enough of a monthly workout class she holds at Butabika Hospital, it is one thing she says always leaves her blessed. “Every after a class, they are free and can exchange stories with us, they reveal a lot of stigma that is self-imposed and also from the public. They tend to think they are alone.”
But those were simply Opoka’s words when this paper first visited her dance studio in Kamwokya on Mawanda road almost two months back. Yet the scene at recreation hall in the Occupational Therapy Department (OTD) in Butabika is not that different from the way she explained it.

Every first Wednesday of the month, alongside a few members from the dance studio, Opoka conducts a zumba workout routine with patients at Butabika. There is a group of patients that is a mixed bag of characters, some are hyper while others need a little pushing to even get off their seats; they are wearing light blue shirts and shorts. But before the dancing kicks off, another group wearing dark green uniforms get in. These easily mix with the visitors, cracking jokes and helping out in getting the space ready – for sometime, you will believe they too are visiting.
Eric Kwebiha, an occupation therapist at the hospital, notes that patients dress differently because of the difference in their diag-nosis. “For instance, those in dark green are from the alcohol and drugs unit while those in lighter colours are on medication,” he says.

Zumba is a workout choreography that incorporates hip hop, soca, salsa, samba and mambo among others – while conducting it at her studios, Opoka keeps it rigorous though when she does it with the patients at Butabika, she keeps it as basic. The patients that come to this class are usually screened and later deemed fit to take part, but today, Kwebiha notes that the process was lacking.
“Today it seems even people that are to weak were allowed in,” he says adding that they usually monitor the mental state of someone before allowing them to do zumba. “We cannot allow a client who cannot yet control their symptoms or one that is epileptic,” Kwebiha says.

Fighting stigma
The Zumba session, according to Kwebiha is one way patients get to express themselves in various forms; “for some, it is a forum for socialising while others vent out emotions.”
Stigma being one of the biggest issues that slow down treatment in mental health, Kwebiha says Zumba and the entire process of its happening helps in curbing the issue.

For example, since Opoka comes with members from her studio, working out with the patients in the same space creates a feeling that they are all equal and of course, most of the leadership tasks within the session are given to patients which Kwebiha says makes them notice that they are still important; “every time you give them tasks, they start believing in themselves again.”

Way to detoxify
But the most important thing could be a fact that zumba gives patients a chance to dance off the heavy medication and face their demons. Eric (not real names) has been at the facility for seven weeks – a former abuser of substance, he says zumba helps him relax and socialise.

Brought to Butabika by relatives, he says he started using drugs as a student, however, a need for a height better than what he was experiencing pushed him to try stronger things, once hooked, he started feeling weak and sick if he had not used; “My father had given up on me after learning that I was abusing drugs,” says Eric declaring that he has been clean for seven weeks now.
A second time participant in zumba, Eric says the routine is a reminder that some people in the public have not given up on them. He adds that being at the facility has also improved his relationship with his family and God.

Opoka hopes the monthly session can bridge a gap between patients and the public. “Some of them were abandoned by their families and the feeling of not being loved haunts them,” she says. Yet the dance class of less than 50 patients is just a drop in the ocean if compared to the many Ugandans suffering in silence with various mental disorders because of public ridicule and stigma. Kwebiha too says that whenever they get a patient, they try their best to educate their families as a way of involving them in the recovery process.

According to Dr Caroline Birungi, a psychiatrist and lecturer in the department of psychiatry at Makerere University, 35 per cent of Ugandans (about 11.5 million people) suffer from some form of mental illness, with depression being one of the most common, and yet, only half of that is receiving treatment. “Mental illness is a very big problem but because of the stigma, many families choose to lock up their sick people,” she says, adding that the stigma complicates treatment where mentally ill people leave in isolation making it hard for the necessary help to reach them.

She, however, adds that initiatives are being made to create awareness to cut on the stigma. For instance, Uganda’s draft mental health policy encompasses many positive reforms, in-cluding decentralisation and integration of mental health services into Primary Health Care (PHC).

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