Uganda faces surge in internet addiction-related mental health cases

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Kampala, Uganda | URN | Psychiatrists are reporting a new wave of mental illness caused by excessive internet use and digital platform addiction. Termed “internet addiction,” this emerging mental health issue has led to at least 318 cases being admitted at the Butabika National Referral Mental Hospital in Kampala.

Among the 10,740 inpatients being treated for various conditions at the hospital, internet addiction ranks as one of the top mental health cases, alongside conditions such as schizophrenia (4,254 cases), bipolar disorder (2,268 cases), and alcohol use disorder (1,648 cases). The majority of patients affected by internet addiction are young people of all genders.

Richard Okidi Owor, a Senior Counselor at Butabika National Referral Mental Hospital, notes that men account for the largest number of mental illness cases, totaling approximately 6,784 patients. According to Owor, the rise in internet addiction cases began after the COVID-19 pandemic and has steadily increased since then.

Excessive internet use and reliance on digital tools for various purposes, such as seeking pleasure, companionship, work, sports betting, or as a means to avoid alcohol and drugs, contribute to this condition.

Owor emphasized that while individuals may try to escape alcohol and drug addiction, they may still experience mental breakdowns due to excessive internet use and concentration on digital platforms. The overuse of the internet triggers the pleasure center of the brain, leading to addictive behaviors. The release of dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure, fuels the addiction and reinforces the dependence on the internet and digital tools.

Similar to alcohol and drug addiction, internet and digital tool addiction hijacks the brain’s pleasure center, making individuals reliant on these platforms and rendering them helpless without constant access to them. He explained that unlearning these addictive behaviors requires a process of reconditioning and willpower.

Mental health facilities like PACTA Uganda Mental Health Clinic and Recovery Connection in Gulu City have admitted patients whose addiction to the internet stems from online gambling for financial gain. However, alcohol addiction remains a significant contributor to mental illnesses across the country.

Matthew Otto, the Board Director of PACTA-Uganda Gulu, highlights the urgent need for the government to allocate more resources and funding to the mental health department. He emphasizes the importance of regulating the trade and consumption of alcohol and drugs, which he believes contribute significantly to mental health problems in the population.

Betty Aol Ocan, the Gulu City Woman Member of Parliament, shares concerns about the inadequate allocation of resources to the mental health department, despite the growing number of patients. During her recent visit to Gulu Regional Referral Hospital, she discovered dilapidated structures, insufficient staff, inadequate funding, and a lack of basic facilities in the mental health unit.

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Aol promised to advocate within Parliament, particularly through the Committee on Mental Health, to secure more resources and funding for the department to address the increasing demand for mental health services in the country. Dr. Peter Mukobi, the Director of Gulu Regional Referral Hospital, acknowledges that they are facing challenges of underfunding and understaffing. He notes that the mental health unit is particularly affected, with only one psychiatrist available.

A former mental health client, who was admitted to PACTA-Uganda with a similar condition, disclosed that the internet became their main companion during the COVID-19 pandemic, unaware that it would lead to addiction and mental health problems. At PACTA Uganda Gulu, mental health issues resulting from alcohol and drug addiction are addressed through the twelve steps and traditions, as well as the fourteen laws of sobriety.

These programs primarily focus on imparting life lessons, instilling values, promoting a sense of belonging, and providing strategies for coping with loneliness. A 2022 report by the Uganda Counselling Association reveals that an estimated 14 million Ugandans suffer from some form of mental disorder. Experts suggest that these figures may have increased due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Uganda ranks among the top six countries globally in terms of rates of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, other psychoses, dementia, and autism.