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General News of Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Source: by Alesha Porisky

Mental health-care crisis in Ghana

The system is over-worked, underfunded, and completely ignored by the international community
Imagine being a mental patient in a country with a population of 22 million people and only four psychiatrists in active practice. Welcome to Ghana.

At the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, a nurse unlocks the barred gate that opens into the special ward that houses the hospital’s aggressive patients. The ward’s 336 patients sit idly elbow-to-elbow at tables in the crowded courtyard. There are only 39 beds in the ward; the rest of the patients depend on their relatives to buy them mats to sleep on.

During the days, the patients used to be engaged in occupational therapy: they were able to learn a trade or a skill—anything from carpentry to tailoring—that would facilitate their reintegration into society after treatment. However, the program has been mostly shut down due to a lack of funding, leaving the option open to only a lucky few. Now, to pass the time, there are only simple games to play amongst themselves.

Lack of resources, funding and understanding about the realities of mental illness ensure that mental health patients are further marginalized.

For the 1100 patients currently at the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, there are only 500 beds, 250 nurses and seven doctors.

Early in the morning, outpatients and their families line up in the sweltering heat, hoping to be one of the lucky few to see a doctor that day. Despite their hours of waiting, new patients receive a half-hour with a psychiatrist, while returning patients get five minutes.

Mental illness has long been a contentious issue in Ghana: still surrounded by an unshakable stigma, the few psychiatric hospitals Ghana does have are overcrowded. Receiving a meager 60 pesewa ($0.57) per patient a day from the government, the Accra Psychiatric Hospital can barely afford to treat the population it has.

Many patients are abandoned by their families at the hospital, and the psychiatric wards therefore become home to patients who are ready, but unable, to reintegrate into society. These healthy patients place an additional strain on already depleted resources.

Dr. Akwasi Osei, the Accra Psychiatric Hospital’s Medical Director, affirmed that a study that revealed that, on average, the hospital did not have adequate drugs 40 per cent of the time. “New drugs are expensive,” he stated, “and according to policy, treatment is free.”

Due to the plethora of other diseases threatening developing countries and the ready access to mental health resources in developed countries, we often don’t stop to consider the impact of mental illness in countries such as Ghana. Which is dangerous, considering that one in four people worldwide develop a mental illness. Even in a country such as Ghana—which is relatively developed compared to much of sub-Saharan Africa—is still struggling to care for large portions of its population.

Alesha Porisky is the VP of Promotions for UBC’s Journalists for Human Rights chapter. She recently did a three month stint volunteering as a newspaper journalist in Ghana through Projects Abroad. She is a fourth year student at UBC, taking a double major in economics and political science.