Improving mental health through sport
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“Sharing experiences after a game gives me courage and hope. Some girls have even more problems than I have.”- J. Annet, 17

Today is World Mental Health Day. We highlight the Swiss Academy for Development’s project working with South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, which demonstrates the potential of sport to tackle the symptoms of trauma and other mental health issues.

Since the conflict in South Sudan reignited in 2015, over 2 million people have fled the country. Those seeking asylum have encountered violence, destruction of property, loss of family members and additional trauma related to displacement. Neighbouring Uganda hosts more South Sudanese refugees than any other country –  the number of men, women and children arriving there is expected to top 1.3 million by the end of this year.

Women on the Move

The Women on the Move Uganda project began in 2017, implemented by the Swiss Academy for Development and its partners, Community Psychosocial Support Organisation (CPSO) and Women Win. The project aims to improve the mental health and wellbeing of refugees in Moyo District, Uganda using a trauma-informed sport and play-based approach.

Based on initial questionnaires, 84% of programme participants have experienced some form of trauma, with the majority of female participants reporting physical and psychological abuse. As basic needs like food and shelter require immediate attention, few organisations target mental health in refugee contexts. However, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues can have lasting effects on refugees’ overall health.

The Women on the Move Uganda project aims to fill the gap in mental health treatment by providing women, men, children and youth in refugee camps with psychological counselling, psychosocial education sessions and livelihood training in addition to sport and recreation activities.

Why sport for mental health?

The inherent benefits of physical activity make it a vital part of improving mental health. It has been proven to help those suffering from anxiety and depression, and can help individuals make social connections while building physical and mental strength. A trauma-informed approach builds on these physiological benefits, as coaches are trained in leading sessions designed for survivors of trauma. Separate counselling sessions complement the games, while the sport and play activities serve as a safe space to build healthy habits and strong relationships, while supporting recovery.

One participant, J. Annet, 17, expressed how she feels about the activities: 

Since July 2017, I participate in the sport and play-based activities: playing football, creative dancing, and life skill games. I joined these activities because I feel relaxed and fresh in the morning. Sharing experiences after a game gives me courage and hope. Some girls have even more problems than I have. I make friends from other parts of the camps and I learn from others.” - J. Annet, 17

The project helps participants to build trust in others and themselves, become more confident and live life as normally as possible. Sport is a natural catalyst for these processes, and through this approach, refugees gain coping skills which help improve mental health in the long term.

Project at a glance

  • Since June 2017 a total of 3,233 people have benefitted from the programme's psychoeducation sessions. Women, men, children and families also received individual and group counselling, and 475 people visited mobile clinics

  • 15 coaches / psychosocial assistants, six counsellors, one psychiatric clinical officer and one psychiatric assistant implemented the activities in eight camps

  • In total 1,240 women and 847 children benefited from the trauma-informed sport and play-based activities, and 57 psychoeducation sessions were conducted to sensitise 3,233 people about psychosocial issues

  • Preliminary evidence points to a positive impact of project activities on mental health, indicating improved sleep patterns, decreased irritability and jumpiness among a number of participants

  • A second phase of the project will begin in January 2019, and will expand to reach 5,000 women, 2,400 children, 1,700 male youth, 1,200 men and 500 community leaders and authorities

  • Visit the SAD website to find out more about the project