A new 5-year study has been announced to determine the link between social drivers and mental health among young women who live in the slums of Kampala in Uganda. Kennesaw State University (KSU) received the five-year $3.3 million award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and has partnered with Makerere University to conduct this interdisciplinary project.
Mental illnesses are understudied, and scarce services lack evaluations, particularly in low-resource settings such as slums. In response to the vulnerable state of adolescent girls and young women in the urban slums, the team of researchers are implementing this five-year project named “TOPOWA” (The Onward Project On Well-being and Adversity), which means to “keep pushing forward and never giving up”, in the Luganda language.
Makerere University through the School of Public Health is teaming up with two U.S universities, Kennesaw State University (KSU) and Georgia State University (GSU) in the U.S. to implement the research component of the study. The Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL), a community-based organization in Kampala will lead the intervention components.
First of its kind, “the TOPOWA project will examine if a community-based intervention program comprised of vocational training, entrepreneurship and economic empowerment, team building through sports, and psychosocial support (“Socioeconomic Strengthening Targeted Training: “SeSTT”). leads to better mental health outcomes among disadvantaged women living in slums” said Dr. Monica Swahn, the Principal Investigator of the study.
The TOPOWA research project will focus on young women ages 18-24 years, the age period when most mental health symptoms are manifested and expressed. If the study shows that the intervention makes a difference in mental health outcomes (i.e., anxiety, depression, suicidality and substance use symptoms and disorders) for young women, it can address the tremendous unmet mental health needs in Uganda. The study will also increase the understanding of the community and neighborhood characteristics of the urban slums where the young women reside.
It was launched on Tuesday March 8, 2022, on International Women’s Day, a global holiday celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. Speaking at the launch, Dr. Swahn, the Principal Investigator, and also Professor and Dean of the Wellstar College of Health and Human Services at KSU said “TOPOWA was in support of global action to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls”
She also noted that this was a ground-breaking study, with investigators representing diverse expertise from three universities.
“Our TOPOWA project is ground-breaking because we look at the social drivers of mental illness and how to mitigate them. We conceived this project before the pandemic, but now with the pandemic, we know more than ever how mental health has been understudied and the growing scope of unmet need in the community,” she said. Dr. Swahn also added that, “We don’t have enough interventions for mental health in particularly among vulnerable populations in low-resource settings. So, what we have learnt post-COVID is that we need to find scalable interventions to better support mental health for women who live in poverty, particularly women who live in slums.”
Using a multicomponent 27-month, parallel prospective cohort design of young women, the study team will recruit 300 participants from three selected UYDEL study sites in Banda, Bwaise and Makindye to determine the pathways and mechanisms of mental health outcomes. The study will involve focus groups, a Photovoice project, community mapping, surveys, use of sleep wearables, saliva and stress reactivity to detect and determine stress levels of the young women.
The investigators will measure stress though threat reactivity in fear conditioning tests, ratio of salivary cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and α-amylase, and sleep quality by deploying Fitbit wearable sensors for each study participant as well measuring environmental stressors through geotrackers.
“We will ask these young women to wear these Fitbits. These will pick up on the measure of sleep. We know that when people are stressed, they have poor mental health, but also, they have poor sleep,” said Prof. Swahn. She adds that these Fitbit devices are worn just like a wrist watch. “They will give us a lot of insight to what happens at night when people are sleeping. The women may or may not be sleeping as well as they should. So again, it’s another marker of stress, their well-being and physical health. It really adds another important innovative component of the study. We looked for other studies across the sub-Saharan Africa and have not found any studies that use this technology in this type of setting so these gadgets will give us a lot of insight.”
Dr. Catherine Abbo, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Makerere University College of Health Sciences, and Co-Investigator of the TOPOWA study, says depression and other mental health issues are on the rise in Uganda, though they continue to go unrecognized.
“These women actually don’t even reach the clinic but people just suffer while they are in the communities. There are different anxiety disorders. So, the current estimates from the previous research shows about 1 in every 4 people have mental health issues,” Dr. Abbo says.
Asked about what could be the drivers of mental health in young adults, Dr. Abbo contends some of the drivers are psychosocial arising from the environment we live in while others maybe genetically predisposed.
“If you are going to live in an environment that is poverty stricken, you are going to live in an environment where you are not going to access education, you are not going to have support that you need to be mentally healthy, you become vulnerable to getting mental illness and that is the environmental aspect. And then we have individuals, who, because of their genetic makeup, may develop cause mental illness,” she said.
According to Dr. Abbo, the wearables are new technologies and that this is the first of its kind to be used in research in Uganda. “You know sometimes people go jogging and have phones that take the number of their steps, heart rate, so in the general population we have gadgets that can measure some aspects of body reactions but particularly in this case, it’s going to measure sleep patterns, that signify stress levels.”
Mr. Rogers Kasirye, UYDEL’s Executive Director, argues that many a time, intervention projects have been implemented among youth but they fail because of the inability to tackle underlying issues affecting the young people. He says this study to investigate the mental health status of the young women will go a long way in impacting the way such initiatives can be implemented to achieve greater success.
According to Mr. Kasirye, for over 25 years, UYDEL has worked with young people in the in the slums of Kampala and impacted many young people through their skilling and rehabilitation programs. He pointed out that that a majority of the young people in slums face a lot of challenges including poverty, lack of shelter while others have long lost contact with their families.
“But we don’t go beyond to investigate and support their psychosocial needs. From experience, some people who come to our facilities have alcohol and other problems. Many times, they are even failing to sleep. Some even come to the Centre and tell you that they have not had a meal. You know what it means to sleep on an empty stomach. Others say they lost contact with their families while others say they have been sexually abused and others raped. In other words, they have a mountain of psychosocial needs that must be addressed. With this project, we hope to track girls for several years to match the research findings with empowerment interventions,” said Mr. Kasirye.
Ms. Anna Kavuma, the Deputy Executive Director, UYDEL says the COVID-19 pandemic has had a toll on mental health issues among young women by increasing their vulnerability.
She notes that whereas the boys have equally been affected by the pandemic and could have pushed them to high stress levels, girls have a high level of vulnerability with responsibilities such as bringing up the children, dealing with pregnancies, accessing medical supplies as well as shelter.
“It’s quite difficult for the girls. It’s an understatement for me to say that they are not highly affected by mental issues in Uganda, that is why this project is coming in to understand that. For instance, if we gave young girls vocational skills and training in beauty and cosmetics, or any other vocational skilling, will it help reduce on these stresses that they have? Will it help address the underlying factors that they are facing? Will it help to improve the way they sleep? Will it help improve the stress levels? These are areas we are trying to study and we are hopeful that the results of the study will inform not only programming and practice but also inform policy environment as well,” said Nabulya.
The project’s intervention arm will look at skilling the adolescent girls and young women with the cost-effective beauty training, which the researchers say is also very easy to implement. Dr. Swahn, the PI noted, “We are hoping that if it’s shown to be effective, that is something that can be implemented in other communities and we know that many are offering vocational training but they have not been evaluated the way we are doing it with a very vigorous scientific protocol.
Dr. Rhoda Wanyenze, Professor and Dean, Makerere University School of Public Health thanked Prof. Swahn and UYDEL for partnering with MakSPH to implement this important project citing that the School was ready to work with the team.
“Mental health for young people is such an important area and very timely coming after the challenges and stress from the Coronavirus pandemic! We are excited to partner with you on this project,” said Prof. Wanyenze.
The TOPOWA Research Team is composed of nine investigators spanning two continents and three universities. The Project’s Principal Investigator (PI) is Dean and Professor Monica Swahn of Kennesaw State University. The Co-Investigators of the project include Dr. Cathy Abbo, Dr. Godfrey Bbosa, Dr. John Bosco Isunju, Charles Ssemugabo and Dr. Eddy Walakira from Makerere University, Dr. Ebony Glover from KSU and Dr. Rachel Culbreth and Dr. Karen Nielsen from GSU.
The Executive Director of UYDEL, Rogers Kasirye, leads the implementing partner whose mission is “to enhance socioeconomic transformation of disadvantaged young people through advocacy and skills development for self-reliance”.
The TOPOWA Project Advisory Board is composed of members from the Kampala City Government, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development as well as the Dean for the Makerere University School of Public Health.
Written by Davidson Ndyabahika, Communications Officer, MakSPH/TOPOWA Project