Human Rights Watch accuses Ghana of severely abusing mentally ill persons

New-York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) today October 2, 2012 released a report on how people with mental disabilities are facing serious abuses in Ghana.

The abuses are said to be taking place at Ghana’s psychiatric institutions and spiritual healing centers popularly known as prayer camps, according to the human rights group’s 84-page report.

Titled “Like a Death Sentence’: Abuses against Persons with Mental Disabilities in Ghana,” the report describes how thousands of people with mental disabilities are forced to live in these institutions, often against their will and with little possibility of challenging their confinement.

“In psychiatric hospitals, people with mental disabilities face overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. In some of the spiritual healing centers, popularly known as prayer camps, they are often chained to trees, frequently in the baking sun, and forced to fast for weeks as part of a “healing process,” while being denied access to medications,” the report said.

The report was based on more than 170 interviews the human rights group had with people with mental disabilities in the country’s three public psychiatric hospitals, and in eight prayer camps and the community; family members; healthcare providers; administrators and staff of prayer camps; government officials; and staff members of both local and international organizations working in Ghana.

Unfortunately, the report accuses the Ghanaian government of doing “little to combat such abuse or to ensure that these people can live in the community, as is their right under international law.”

The report threw more light on the challenges of people with mental disabilities who live in the community, who face stigma and discrimination and often lack adequate shelter, food, and healthcare.

The HRW report revealed that at least hundreds – and possibly thousands – of people with mental disabilities are institutionalized in prayer camps associated with Pentecostal churches who are managed by self-proclaimed prophets.

According to the report, these camps operate “completely outside of government control” adding that people with mental disabilities at these camps “do not receive any medical treatment – in some, such treatment is prohibited even when prescribed by a medical doctor.”

Instead, the report indicated, prophets seek to “cure” residents through miracles, consultation with “angels,” and spiritual healing.

The report found even worse conditions in prayer camps than in psychiatric institutions.

In the “Dry Fasting Room” at Heavenly Ministries Spiritual Revival and Healing Center—Church of Pentecost (Edumfa Prayer Camp), Central Region, persons including those with presumed mental disabilities are often forced to fast for three consecutive days without food or water, known as “dry fasting,” as part of the healing process. © 2011 Shantha Rau Barriga/Human Rights Watch

At the eight prayer camps inspected, the report shockingly revealed that “nearly all residents were chained by their ankles to trees in open compounds, where they slept, urinated, and defecated and bathed” with some living at the prayer camps for as long as five months.

“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 report continues.

The HRW said it spoke to one Doris Appiah who lived both in prayer camps and psychiatric hospitals for a total of over 10 years, but is now living in the community.

While in prayer camps, Appiah was tied with ropes for over two months, and forced to take harmful local herbs, which caused side effects to her tongue.

“As soon as you get a mental disability, you nearly lose all your rights, even to give your opinion,” she told Human Rights Watch.

“We call on government to ensure that services are available to persons with mental disabilities as close as possible and that prayer camps are monitored to guard against abuse of those admitted,” Appiah added.

Giving some facts, the report said the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that close to three million Ghanaians live with mental disabilities and 600,000 of these have very severe mental conditions.

Ghana’s three public psychiatric hospitals – in Accra, Pantang, and Ankaful – house an estimated 1,000 people with mental disabilities. In all three institutions, Human Rights Watch said it found filthy conditions, with foul odours in some wards or even feces on the floors due to broken sewage systems indicating that the “hospital in Accra was severely overcrowded and many people spent all day outside the hospital building in the hot sun, with little or no shade.”

Ghana ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in July 2012. Under this convention, countries must undertake steps to ensure that people with mental disabilities can make important life decisions for themselves, including choosing their place of residence and with whom they live, and that they are not forced to live in institutions.

A toilet in the Special Ward at Accra Psychiatric Hospital was in a dilapidated state but was still being used by residents in the ward because there were no other toilet facilities available. © 2011 Shantha Rau Barriga/Human Rights Watch

Ghana’s 2012 Mental Health Act, which went into effect in June, creates a system through which people with disabilities can challenge their detention in psychiatric hospitals. However, the law does not apply to prayer camps, leaving residents without legal remedies to seek release. In most prayer camps, residents may only leave when the prophet deems them healed.

The government should create community-based support services, including housing and healthcare that enable people with mental disabilities to live in the community, Human Rights Watch said.

It further stated that facilities where people with mental disabilities are admitted or treated, including prayer camps, should be carefully regulated.

The government should also ensure that people are not forcefully detained in these facilities or in psychiatric hospitals and that they have access to mechanisms to challenge any violations of their rights.

“The government needs to take immediate steps to end abuses against people with mental disabilities in institutions, prayer camps, and the community,” said Medi Ssengooba, Finberg Fellow at Human Rights Watch. “The conditions in which many people with mental disabilities live in Ghana are inhuman and degrading.”

“Ghana deserves credit for ratifying the Disability Rights Convention,” Ssengooba said. “Now it’s time for some real changes to both policy and practice for people with mental disabilities in Ghana.”

By Ekow Quandzie

Watch the Human Rights Watch Report

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