Spotlight on mental health in Ghana

Imagine your whole world reduced to a 5m x 5m patch of dirt. With your leg chained to a tree, you have no choice but to eat, sleep and defecate right where you are – exposed to the unforgiving elements and those you once called neighbours.

In Ghana, West Africa, this is the horrendous reality for many. Their crime? Having a mental illness – schizophrenia being the most common.

This horrific situation was brought to the world’s attention at the Mental Health and Wellbeing Conference in Ghana, hosted by the Mental Health Foundation of Ghana (MHFG). The MHFG’s aim is to support the Ghanaian Government’s mental health reform agenda following a Human Rights Watch report in 2012 into the standard of mental health in Ghana. Recently MHFG were awarded the African Community Philanthropic Organisation of the Year at the Parliament of Victoria.

At the MHFG’s second annual conference, UON announced two PhD scholarships that represent an investment of more than $230,000 to combat serious abuse of individuals with mental illness in Ghana.

UON Associate Professor Chris Kewley attended the conference as an MHFG international advisor and UON representative. He was joined by Ghanaian mental health professionals, non-Ghanaian mental health clinicians, educators and academics from Australia, the UK, Canada and Europe.

Chris said he leapt at the opportunity to work with highly skilled specialists from across the globe to help tackle the country’s mental health challenges.

“Working with a diaspora group provides an excellent vehicle for non-native ethnographic researchers to safely enter another culture without causing harm,” Chris explains.

“I have a strong research interest in understanding how culture, traditional practice, religion and spirituality influence mental health belief systems and explanatory models of mental illness within Sub-Saharan African communities.”

As well as attending the Mental Health and Wellbeing Conference in October, Chris visited prayer camps and hospitals in Ghana where human rights abuses are a daily occurrence.

“No matter where you look in the world you will find that mental health care is always the poor cousin within any health system … and it is common to find that there is no legislation to protect the human rights of people with a mental health disability.”

The mental health situation in Ghana is dire, with only 12 trained psychiatrists, approximately 500 mental health nurses and a handful of allied health professionals providing mental health services to a population of 26 million.

Battling the cultural and religious stigma around mental illness, where major mental illness is viewed as retribution for offending an ancestral spirit, Chris and the MHFG have enormous obstacles to overcome.

“Many people with a major mental health issue end up locked in chains inside fully built and semi-permanent structures, or chained to a tree or concrete floor in prayer camps until the self-proclaimed pastor or prophet declares them ‘healed’,” Chris said.

“People have to bathe, defecate, urinate, change sanitary towels, eat and sleep on the spot where they are chained.”

While it is difficult to imagine these sorts of inhumane practices still occur in 2015, Chris has court-side seats to the changing Ghanaian agenda around mental health. One of Chris’ most memorable moments during his last trip was the opportunity to work in partnership with “Nanas” (traditional tribal Kings and Queen Mothers) to change the current human rights abuses in prayer camps within the Cape Coast area of Ghana.

In recognition of his work, Chris recently received the inaugural International Dr Crosby Mochia Award for Humanitarian Support to the Reforming Mental Health System in Ghana. While there is still a long way to go, Chris hopes the changing attitudes of the Ghanaian government and tribal elders, as well as scholarships to fund research, will go a long way in making mental health issues matter in Ghana.

Any university staff or students interested in affecting positive change in Ghana can contact Associate Professor Chris Kewley on (02) 4921 5751 or chris.kewley@newcastle.edu.au.



Image above: Associate Professor Chris Kewley with traditional leaders of Ghana’s Cape Coast including Nana Queen Mother Abena Gyamfua II.

Main image: Health and Allied Sciences students and staff from the University of Cape Coast.

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