York helps to rebuild healthcare in Rwanda

In the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa and the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, people in Rwanda are not only in need of medical attention, they also require mental health services. However, such services are scarce. There are only two psychiatrists in the country of eight million people and they are unable to meet the needs for care.

Left: Faculty members from the Kigali Health Institute present a basket of hope to faculty volunteers from the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture. The basket was presented by the Kigali delegation as a token of thanks. York Professor Susan McGrath (front, right) is a member of the centre’s board of governors and was present to receive the basket.

“Between the genocide and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, nearly everyone in Rwanda is traumatized. There have been efforts here and there but they need more,” said Professor Susan McGrath, director of York’s Centre for Refugee Studies and a professor in the School of Social Work, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies.

To create a plan to improve these practices, Donatilla Mukamana, Dusabe Mugabe Athanase and Augustin Gasovya, faculty members from the Kigali Health Institute in Rwanda, visited York University during a tour of Canadian institutions to learn more about mental health services. From May 2 to 17, the group toured major mental healthcare institutions around the GTA, including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, St. Michael’s Hospital, the Canadian Mental Health Association and Street Health. They also visited the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture.

“Western models are written, documented and structured. In Rwanda, there is less structure and very few trained medical professionals. There is so much to be done,” said Regine King, a survivor of the genocide who has practised mental health counselling in both Rwanda and Canada. King, a doctoral student in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, met with the group during their tour and is a member of the project’s mental health team.

“We really benefited from seeing practices being carried out in both the community and hospitals,” said Mukamana.

Their visit was part of a new five-year Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) project, titled “Rebuilding Health in Rwanda”. Developed in collaboration with the University of Western Ontario, York University, Fanshawe College, the University of Ottawa and the National University of Rwanda, the project’s goal is to strengthen Kigali Health Institute’s nursing curriculum in the areas of mental health and HIV/AIDS. York’s team, which includes Nancy Johnston, professor of nursing in the Faculty of Health, and McGrath, the project’s Canadian lead, is focusing on mental health practice.

“York University offers the project a unique perspective in terms of both mental health and nursing. York is well-positioned to carry out this project,” says McGrath. “We have nursing and social work schools and a Faculty of Health, to provide an interdisciplinary point of view.”

Athanase praised York’s hospitality and professional attitude. “Susan McGrath and York’s mental health team organized the visit to best suit our needs. We received a very warm welcome,” he said. “The faculty were very organized and created an environment that was conducive to our learning.”

The project hopes to create a full exchange, as members of York’s faculty travel to Kigali Health Institute later this summer and continue to help rebuild health in Rwanda.

More about the Rebuilding Health in Rwanda project

The purpose of the project is to collaboratively rebuild the training programs for health professionals and expand the cadre of health professionals with an emphasis on skills in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS, and mental health.

A key expected outcome is the increase in the capacity of the Kigali Health Institute to develop and deliver relevant and current educational programming, particularly in areas related to HIV/AIDS and mental health, including trauma. The project will also improve the ability of nursing students and graduates to provide comprehensive and community-based nursing care and counselling to individuals with HIV/AIDS and to women and children experiencing the effects of trauma due to the genocide or sexual violence.

The main project beneficiaries include Kigali Health Institute faculty members and students, hospital matrons and nurses from the Central Hospital of Kigali, as well as nurses in 366 health centres throughout Rwanda and the community members benefiting from their care.

This article was submitted to YFile by Bethany Hansraj, York student in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies.