Breaking the Chains: Disability in Ghana

The stigma against mental health issues and treatment is, unfortunately, one without temporal or geographical boundaries. Though progress has been made through various campaigns and programs, in many regions, treatment practices which are generally considered to be inhumane relics of a time where such illnesses were not fully understood are a commonplace reality.

One such instance which has recently garnered media attention was that of shackling the disabled in Ghana. This method involves chaining individuals to a fixed location, sometimes for years on end. As a result, those being “treated” are allowed little range of motion, forcing them to eat, sleep, and even defecate in the same spot, day in and day out.

These “treatments” take place at the many prayer camps dispersed throughout Ghana, where those with psychosocial and physical disabilities alike are brought to be spiritually healed. Many cultural traditions and religious beliefs shape the local conception of disability, with many expressing the collective idea that disabilities are brought on by some sort of curse or demon, and therefore much of the healing process is grounded in prayer. However, as BBC presenter Sophie Morgan found out on her recent journey to these camps in Ghana, ulterior, more violent methods are also employed. As Morgan wrote in her blog following her two week visit, “It soon dawned on me that for many people, disability was considered not a physical or mental impairment, but in fact a spiritual sickness or curse that could either be healed by prayer or by confinement, and in some cases by physical violence.” It is also noteworthy that the misunderstanding and stigma surrounding mental health issues can result in the shackling of people with no mental disability at all. While some of the psychosocial conditions of the patients are real, some are merely perceived by community members, and have no biological or psychological founding.

Benita Sena Okity-Duah, the leader of Ghana’s delegation to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Source: WikiMedia Commons

Prior to passing the 2012 Mental Health Act, mental health programs and clinics in Ghana operated in accordance to outdated legislation, which had last been revised in 1972. Furthermore, according to a survey conducted by the International Journal of Mental Health Systems, this law “focused mainly on institutional care of the mentally ill and was not in accordance with contemporary international human rights standards regarding mental health care.” The same survey also revealed the lack of actual training in psychiatric care among those who administered treatment in the camps, with only 1 of the 10 surveyed practitioners in faith-based facilities having received formal training.

Though the government outlawed shackling as a treatment method in 2012, this was never formally enforced, allowing the abuse to carry on. Inhumane “treatment” practices are almost a standard in Ghana, in the case of both the mentally and psychically disabled. Due to the lack of sufficient funding for community health services, many families feel they have no alternative option, leaving them to resort to methods which only cause further damage and trauma to patients. This financial inadequacy works in conjunction with the lack of enforcement in health care legislation, thus allowing practices such as shackling and beating the disabled to continue in a widespread fashion. In 2015, following a visit to review the progress of mental health care in Ghana after the 2012 legislation, UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez issued a press release criticizing the lack of regulation and monitoring of programs in private institutions, like the aforementioned prayer camps. The human rights expert deemed these practices and the conditions of patients within them, “frankly unacceptable” and ones which “constitute torture” that the government can no longer ignore. In response to those who claim the methods as culturally ingrained and voluntary, Méndez retorted decisively, “The reference to culture and tradition cannot be invoked to justify harmful practices to individuals.”

The 2012 Act, as well as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, requires the government of Ghana to supply community mental health resources through parliament. Though some individuals were released from prayer camps this summer, Ghana still has a long way to go in terms of mental health education and reform. Earlier in October, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations launched the #BreakTheChains social media campaign, urging Ghanaian government officials to fulfill these commitments once and for all. Organizations like Human Rights Watch are continuing to fight for victims of shackling and promote government investment in alternative mental health care methods in order to do away with an inhumane practice which has become a cultural norm.

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