In a bid to improve access to mental healthcare, the Health ministry is set to conduct a countrywide survey to establish the number of people living with mental health challenges.
Dr Hafsa Lukwata, the acting assistant commissioner for mental health and control of substance abuse at the ministry, said the lack of data on the state of mental health in the country had created a gap in planning for those in need of care.
Dr Lukwata said a private entity will support the survey that is planned to help government offer better and demand-driven interventions.
"We have had a challenge of not knowing the actual prevalence of the different mental conditions in the country until lately. An organisation has come up to help us carry out this nationwide survey to help establish the state of mental health in the country," Dr Lukwata said.
She was speaking during the launch a toll-free helpline set up by Mental Health Uganda, an organisation championing mental health awareness. The toll-free line will offer counselling and referral services to persons facing mental health challenges.
Asked how patients will be identified in a sea of people with different challenges, Dr Lukwata said a team of experts in the field has been selected to conduct the survey.
"There is some science around it. Mental health challenges are not like malaria that has clear symptoms. People get challenges in different forms, there is depression, anxiety, and those are some that we will be investigating. Not everyone who does not sleep well or has panic attacks has a mental health problem. There is a criteria, explicit signs and symptoms which when put together, give you a diagnosis and it requires a lot of work to get the right people for this surveys," Dr Lukwata said.
Mr Derrick Kizza, the executive director of Mental Health Uganda, said the ministry needs to be establish strict and science-backed criteria to be followed.
For a country still grappling with understanding the meaning of mental health, stakeholders want the ministry to integrate the phenomenon in primary healthcare and invest in community awareness and interventions. Drug stockouts and high prices in private facilities has also been a big challenge.
Dr Lukwata, however, said the department has a small budget that cannot be stretched any further.
"As a country we have dealt a lot with the clinical aspect of treating people with mental illness. However, we know these illnesses take on a chronic mode of care, we will not depend on the facility-based care of treatment. There are other interventions that can be worked out at the community level to help people with challenges recover. That is where our emphasis as a country is; psychosocial interventions," Dr Lukwata said.
The ministry is also in the process of establishing regulations for the implementation of the Mental Health Act that, among others, directs that each district should have a person in charge and isolation units be headed by an expert in psychiatry.
Mr Derrick Kizza, the executive director of Mental Health Uganda, said more than 500 calls were recorded on the first day of the opening of the toll-free line.
The line  will be used to offer counselling and referral services, with special attention to young people between 15 and 35 years.
The organisation has partnered with health facilities in different regions to refer those in need of further help. The lines will be stationed across eight districts in Gulu, Lira, Kampala, Mpigi, Soroti, Mbale, Kanungu and Mbarara to offer services in English, Luo, Swahili, Luganda and Runyakitara.