Joseph AturkundaJoseph Atukunda is a 2012 Commonwealth Professional Fellow from Uganda who undertook his fellowship in Public Health, Economic Growth, and Education at the East London NHS Foundation Trust. His fellowship specifically allowed him to observe practices, peer support, and recovery services in the UK mental health sector. The Lancaster-based Critical and Creative Approaches to Mental Health Practice (CCRAMHP) hosted Joseph to hear first-hand his perspective on mental health and to learn from his experience at his own organisation, Heartsounds Uganda.

Whilst visiting the CCRAMHP group Joseph was introduced to Dr Jenny Davies of Lancaster University, Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Tutor in the Division of Health Research. Their meeting has led to a lasting collaboration between the two organisations. Jenny was keen to form links with an overseas partner, and found Joseph had an acute understanding of mental health issues. ‘I was impressed by Joseph’s description of the work that Heartsounds does and his astute observations about our mental health services in the UK.’

This meeting resulted in an invitation for Joseph to attend a Lancaster University conference of clinical trainers following his fellowship in November 2013. Joseph was impressed by the presented model of openly sharing stories about issues concerning mental health. Jenny followed up with a visit to Uganda in January 2014 with two of her students to continue learning about Heartsounds Uganda and different approaches to treating mental health illnesses in different contexts.

Jenny has found this collaboration very beneficial. ‘Joseph and his colleagues in Heartsounds continue to inspire, particularly during a recent visit I went with two trainees) to Uganda where we put into action some Sharing Stories workshops designed to bring together people who use, and people who work, in mental health services in both Uganda and the UK.’

Heartsounds is a revolutionary mental health organisation that focuses on recovering from mental health illness and thriving through peer support. Joseph became involved with the Heartsounds organisation in 2008 and founded Heartsounds Uganda in the following year. An emphasis is placed on camaraderie gained through sharing personal experiences.

Heartsounds Uganda aims to end the stigma associated with mental health disorders by building a sense of belonging. Isolation is often an unspoken side-effect of a mental illness. The Heartsounds organisation works to combat seclusion by forming new networks for those diagnosed with mental health issues. It is a company built by people with common experiences, all sharing their stories about treatment and the obstacles faced in daily life. This coping mechanism aids recovery and the complications of living with a mental illness. By interacting with Peer Support Workers, who themselves have overcome mental health issues,and confronting similar obstacles, members of Heartsounds Uganda gain sense of self-discovery, confidence, stability, and hope.

Peer Support Workers are trained as part of the Brain Gain Project funded by the Department for International Development. Thirty-six Heartsounds Uganda participants were educated in professional skills that increased their qualifications in mental health management. Training emphasized personal narratives, recovery techniques, collective values, and communication skills.

The Peer Workers made over 500 visits to hospitals and homes within the Kampala metropolitan area. Patients who are supported by the Peer Workers learn how to discard the stigma of their mental illness. Additionally, the Peer Support Workers themselves have something to gain by working with Heartsounds Uganda. They achieve a sense of purpose, routine, and the satisfaction of ‘giving something back’ to their community. Joseph has also observed that a high number of the trained individuals have fewer relapses since the start of the Brain Gain Project, with some Peer Workers living completely relapse-free since their training.