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Opinions of Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Columnist: Sanahene, James

In the past and still ....

Sanahene James writes:

In October 2012, Human Rights Watch released a damning report which documented the inhumane treatment of Ghanaian sufferers of mental illnesses. The report described overcrowded and filthy conditions, foul odors and feces on the floors due to broken sewage systems. Patients in these so-called healing centers are chained to trees by their ankles in open compounds, and left to sleep, urinate, defecate and bathe in that same spot. As part of the “healing process,” people with mental disabilities in these camps – including children under age 10 – are routinely forced to fast for weeks, usually starting with 36 hours of so-called dry-fasting, denied even water.

The entire nation gasped at the inhumanity of those entrusted with the care of extremely vulnerable people. We wonder: how can this happen? How is it that we allow this to occur? Were the staff members of these hospitals callous and indifferent? Or maybe they were not properly trained or resourced to do their job well? Whatever the reason, the situation testifies to the persistent problem of providing good care for the mentally impaired. Human Rights Activist poured in criticisms and condemnations from all corners of the earth. After some few months and a few feeble calls for change…we are back to where we started.

In the past, and still, to an unfortunate extent, people living with mental disorders in the Ghanaian society have suffered denial or infringement of a wide range of basic rights. In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed mental health as a universal human right. A universal human right it might be, yet millions around the world are still deprived of it.

The mentally impaired have been objects of pity, compassion, or abuse by their caretakers and society at large. But they have rarely been seen as citizens, as persons with equal entitlement to fulfillment. Mental illness comes to the public’s attention in sensation stories that expose appalling forms of abuse, like the one described above.

Just visit any of the psychiatric hospitals and let your eye fall upon the sufferers, the bedridden; enter the institutions for the mentally ill, for those whose, mental powers are disturbed, and observe there the dull eyes of those deprived of the light of understanding and there the twisted features of the other- wise beautiful human face, or there the senseless grin of the insane which bedevils the countenance of the sufferer .Here men, created to be image- bearer of the Most High and to dwell with Him in everlasting blessedness, are treated as second class citizens.

“I’m dodging being hospitalized, and they can’t put me where I don’t want to go. It is a big, fat lie. It is nothing but a delusion, or a trick of the brain …..the gargantuan promises by reformers to get a state-of-the-art mental health care”. These are the words of a middle aged man from Madina Estate, a suburb of Accra who is suffering from mild anxiety.

It is the business of a just society to provide its citizens with the means to express moral powers, that is, to pursue the good life as they see it and to allow others to pursue the good life as they see it. It is not as if there is no other way. There have been waves of reform across the world which have improved hospital conditions. There are proven effective treatments both in medication and in psychotherapy. There are new opportunities every day, to promote and support healing from psychiatric disorders. We believe we have had some success in this work. Moreover, to some degree we have. Nevertheless, the pictures are still the same. People living with mental illness still suffer disconnection, alienation, exclusion and blatant discrimination, and they are also living in poverty. Let it be known that, rights are not conferred by government; they are the birthright of all people.

A call for change simply offers an image of the destination-a vision- and provides some ideas for moving forward the process of transforming the mental health care system toward more recover-oriented policies and practices.

The first step of transformational change is to develop a vision of the desired destination and to plot a roadmap for getting there. The roadmap must include not only the proposed route, but also an understanding of how the path may twist and turn and what roadblocks may be anticipated. Sometimes detours and rest stops are necessary.

However, if there is a firm destination in mind and a commitment to getting there, roadblocks, detours, and rest stops do not derail the journey. The delay in establishing the Mental Health Board to see to the implementation of the Mental Health Bill can never be an excuse for disabled intellectuals to cringe in excruciating heart pain.

At For All Africa Foundation (FAAF), we are taking action to correct these wrongs. In past year, FAAF has been organizing and campaigning in public squares, schools and churches to not only debunk myths about people with mental disorders but also critique actions of the government of Ghana and prod policy makers, to improve services, and treatment of people with mental disorders.

And while we take action, we also pray for the strength and resources to support those in need. And we pray that those who are in positions of power will have the insight and determination to improve existing structures of care, and that they have the presence of mind to faithfully and carefully consider the welfare of those who struggle with mental illness. God bless our dear nation, Ghana.