South Sudan claimed independence eight years ago but has been at civil war for six of them. Prior to the current civil war, the worlds youngest country was involved in two others from 1955-1972 and 1983-2005 respectively. This ongoing cycle of violence has caused South Sudan to be plagued with numerous problems such as high death tolls and a large number of people displaced from their homes. But one issue that is going undetected and untreated during all three civil wars is the number of people suffering from mental illness.
Since South Sudan does not have a mental health database it is unclear how many people are directly affected by mental illness. But one study conducted by the South Sudan Law Society and the United Nations Development Programme reported that more than forty percent of people surveyed across six states showed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite these findings, the South Sudanese government is investing very little money in providing adequate mental healthcare. Only two percent of government funding is allocated to the healthcare system, with very little put towards mental health treatment.
With the government failing to take affirmative action it has caused individuals like Dr. Atong Ayuel to take matters into their own hands. Dr. Atong is only one of three qualified psychiatrists in South Sudan and works at the Juba Teaching Hospital. Alongside a team of psychologists and policemen, the South Sudanese psychiatrist drive around the streets of Juba, seeking out any homeless people who show signs of depression, schizophrenia, bipolar or any other mental disorder. They then bring them to the Juba Teaching Hospital where they feed, bathe, and clothe the patients before providing them with proper psychological treatment.
Recently, Dr. Atong and her team have been treating thirty to forty patients a month. However, the Juba Teaching Hospital psychiatric ward only has twelve beds which means that the majority of patients are forced to return to the streets after being treated, where they have no social support systems to provide further assistance in treating their illnesses.
Outside of Juba, the mental health crisis is direr. With the other two qualified psychiatrists also located in the nation’s capital citizens, those with mental health problems living elsewhere flee to displacement camps to seek medical treatment. Emmanuel Rambo is a Community Health Educator for Doctors Without Borders (DWB) and works at the Malakal camp, located 2,700 kilometers from Juba. According to Rambo, counselors conduct 900 individual consultations a month. Furthermore, every month between January and October of 2018, the Markal camp has seen thirty new patients arrive to seek help for some form of mental disorder. Like Dr. Atong, Rambo and his team are under facilitated and struggle to handle this large influx of patients.
The need to assist those suffering from mental illness is not only necessary for the individual’s well-being, but for South Sudan as a whole. Eventually the third, and hopefully final civil war in South Sudan will come to an end, and when it does the country will need to rebuild. This recovery process will be extremely difficult if the majority of their citizens are still carrying mental wounds. Therefore, more needs to be done now to help Rambo, Dr. Atong, and other mental health professionals in South Sudan to help their citizens deal and overcome their trauma and become functioning members of society.