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World Mental Health Day (10 October) is a day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy. It was first celebrated in 1992 at the initiative of the World Federation for Mental Health, a global mental health organization with members and contacts in many countries. On this day, each October, millions of supporters globally observe an annual awareness program to bring attention to mental illness and its major effects on people’s lives. In some countries this day has now been expanded upon and forms part of an awareness week, such as Mental Illness Awareness Week in the US and Mental Health Week in Australia.
The theme for Mental Health Day 2016 is ‘Dignity in Mental Health-Psychological & Mental Health First Aid for All’. The focus of this year’s event to lift mental health out of the shadows so that people feel more confident in tackling the stigma, isolation and discrimination that continues to plague people with mental health conditions, their families and carers.
In Ghana’s health care system, mental health is greatly overlooked. According to Human Rights Watch, around 2.8 million people in Ghana have mental disabilities, 650,000 of which are estimated to have severe ones - that is about 1 in every 33 people in Ghana. However, the number of professional services available is inadequately small. There are only 600 psychiatric nurses and 15 psychiatrists working in all of Ghana which makes it virtually impossible to provide necessary treatment to all patients. In addition, these specialists practice in as few as 3 psychiatric hospitals, all of which are located in the South - two in the Greater Accra region and one in the Central region.
Moreover, mental health care, while scarcely available to adults, is hardly available to children. It is reported that there is not a single dedicated child psychiatrist in Ghana. Combined with the insufficient number of psychiatrists, this reality makes it impossible for children to be recognized with an illness early in their lives, if at all. The lack of awareness causes many to see signs of mental illness as possession by demons or accuse children of witchcraft, the latter being especially present in the Northern Region. Regardless of location, it is a standard to deny the patients access to drinking water or food, claiming that fasting is a way to cure them. Children are treated in the same conditions as adults, including chaining patients to logs and providing no toilets or places to wash themselves. As reported by Human Rights Watch, a 9-year-old patient of Edumfa Prayer Camp was forced to fast for 21 days while chained in one room with 20 other males. In another case at Nyakumasi Prayer Camp in Central Region in January 2012, a 10-year-old girl was found chained to a tree despite having a concerning skin condition.
To mark World Mental Health Day 2016, the Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC) is eager to improve this situation and smash the stigma surrounding mental health in Ghana. A core component of programme for this year is engaging with the media to discuss the situation of persons living with mental illness in Ghana. In particular, HRAC is hoping to engage with Adom and GBC television stations spread the word on mental health. Through these activities, we are keen to reach as many people as possible to highlight both the progress made, as well as areas for improvement, in mental health service provision in Ghana. This reflects the theme of World Mental Health Day 2016, with its focus on dignity in mental health care provision.
To this end, HRAC recognizes that dignity for persons suffering from mental illness is central to enabling such persons to fully enjoy their human rights. This is reflected in HRAC’s ongoing work on the issue of mental illness. In 2015-16, HRAC assisted in preparing a shadow report for the United Nations Human Rights Committee on the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The shadow report highlighted the gaps in mental health care in Ghana. Reflecting these issues, the Committee, as part of its concluding observations, recommended that Ghana needs to take steps to tackle mental illness. Central to recommendations was the effective implementation of the Mental Health Act and the regulation of ‘Prayer Camps’ that purport to treat mental illness.
HRAC is committed to continuing its work in the area of mental health, and encouraging the Ghanaian Government to implement the recommendation of the UN Committee. To this end, we hope that all Ghanaians will use Mental Health Day 2016 to pause and reflect on their own attitudes towards mental illness and how Ghana can best meet the needs of citizens suffering with mental health issues.