Ugandan Doctor Using Herbs to Treat Mental Illnesses

As of 2020, an estimated 15 million Ugandans were mentally ill, according to findings from a study carried out in Northwestern University's Medical journal, Globemed. The study showed that only about 35 percent of the 15 million were on treatment.

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Mental health treatment is usually associated with psychiatric wards where patients are drugged with large amounts of medicine to treat various mental diseases.  However, Dr. Juuko Ndawula, a trained physician and specialist in chronic diseases is out to change the approach to mental health treatment.  

Instead of using synthetic drugs, Dr. Ndawula uses a combination of herbal remedies, counseling, and meditation to help heal the mind. He uses a concoction of local herbs and imports from countries such as Uganda, Congo, Cameroon, Brazil, Australia, and Indonesia.

He uses the herbs to treat mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, and addictions such as alcohol and drug abuse. Some of the herbs that he uses include Mululuza (Vernonia amygdaline), blackjack ( Seere), cannabis, and Khat (Mairungi) to make herbal medicines. 

Compared to bio-medicine, Dr. Ndawula says that his approach to medicine is holistic and aims at treating the root cause of illnesses and not the symptoms.

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According to Dr. Ndawula, Khat and Mululuza have minerals and basic nutrients that can be used to heal the mind. He explains that each herbal treatment can have about 10 to 12 different herbs or ingredients that are mixed together to create medicine.

According to Dr. Ndawula, alternative medicine focuses on treating people based on their DNA composition. He says different people suffering from the same ailment for instance can end up getting different treatments based on their DNA.

As of 2020, an estimated 15 million Ugandans were mentally ill, according to findings from a study carried out in Northwestern University's Medical journal, Globemed. The study showed that only about 35 percent of the 15 million were on treatment.     

Recent figures released by the Ministry of Health and the Uganda Counselling Association in May 2022 showed that 14 million Ugandans were seeking treatment for mental illnesses from different treatment facilities. 

A 2017 report by the World Health Organisation on mental ill-health estimates that 9.8 percent of the cases are from alcohol-related disorders while 4.6 are due to depression. The report shows that anxiety contributes to 2.9 percent of all cases.

When our reporter visited Dr. Ndawula's office in Kitintale in Nakawa East, she found several patients waiting for treatment. According to Dr. Ndawula, the use of alternative medicine is becoming popular. He says many patients prefer using herbs because they believe they are a more natural solution with fewer side effects. 

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James Okwi, one of Dr. Ndwaula's patients, says that the treatment helped him overcome alcohol abuse without facing the stigma associated with going to a psychiatric hospital for help.   

"To be able to function well, I would have to drink at least ten beers every day. If I didn't drink I would feel sick. I knew I needed help after being involved in my fourth car accident that nearly took my life but I was scared of going to Butabiika and for a while, I didn't get treatment. I stayed home and thought I would control it on my own but always ended up on the bottle. When I heard about Dr. Ndwaula and his treatment that could be enjoyed in the comfort of my home, I decided to try it out," he said.  

Okwi says that twice a day for three months, he took juice-containing herbal medicine. With time he says that the urge to drink a beer went until he woke up one day and realized that he had spent a week without drinking a bottle of beer.

The cost of herbal treatments varies depending on the disease and the duration of treatment. For instance, a three-month prescription like the one used by Okwi costs 320,000 shillings inclusive of a consultation fee of 20,000 shillings.   

The use of alternative medicines to treat chronic illnesses is not a new phenomenon. Herbalists have come up with treatments for diseases such as diabetes and even cancer in some cases. However, there have been regulatory issues with the National Drug Authority cautioning people on using the products because many of them have not been tested to determine their safety and efficacy.

Dr. David Basangwa, a psychiatric consultant says that the use of herbs to treat mental diseases is a good addition. While Dr. Basangwa says he has not yet heard about the use of herbs to treat mental illnesses, he says the introduction of such medicines would be a game-changer in the psychiatric world.

"We know that there are herbs that have healing qualities for the mind. I have not heard about the use of alternative treatments using herbs in the country but the use of such herbs could be a game-changer in the treatment of mental illnesses. Instead of spending millions buying drugs, this might mean we get cheaper effective options in the country," he said.