‘Prayer camps’ in Ghana shackle people with mental health problems

‘Prayer camps’ in Ghana shackle people with mental health problems October 10, 2018

Human Rights Watch has been keeping close tabs on the way people in Ghana who end up in ‘Prayer camps’ for real or perceived mental health conditions are being treated – and the result of their studies is horrifying.

HRW says in this report that a year after the Ghanaian government pledged to enforce a ban on shackling, the practice is still continuing:

Said Shantha Rau Barriga, HRW’s Disability Rights Director

Hundreds of people with psychosocial disabilities are still shackled like cattle. It’s not only important for the chains to come off, the government needs to sensitize communities and invest in local mental health services. If not, people with psychosocial disabilities may again be subjected to the cruel and abhorrent practice of shackling and the government’s ban will be an empty threat.

The head of Ghana’s Mental Health Authority, Dr Akwasi Osei, announced on World Mental Health Day in 2017 that the government would enforce the 2012 Mental Health Act provision that people with psychosocial disabilities “shall not be subjected to torture, cruelty, forced labour and any other inhuman treatment,” including shackling. He said it was “illegal to put anyone in chains.”

However, on a recent visit to Mount Horeb Prayer Camp in Mamfi, jointly with the Mental Health Authority, Human Rights Watch found dozens of people with psychosocial disabilities still chained and detained in overcrowded and congested conditions.

During that visit, Human Rights Watch found more than 140 people with real or perceived mental health conditions detained in unsanitary and dark rooms, with little ventilation or opportunities to go outside. The stench of urine was overwhelming. One room housed 60 men, some of whom have been there for more than five years. As of October 10, 42 men remain confined in that room. The gate locked. 113 people with real or perceived mental health conditions are now in the camp.

Families bring people with real or perceived mental health conditions to prayer camps such as this one because of widely-held beliefs that such disabilities are caused by a curse or evil spirits.

In June 2017, in an effort to enforce the law, the Mental Health Authority freed 16 people, including two girls, at Nyankumasi Prayer Camp in central Ghana. Those freed, some of whom have mental health conditions, were taken to nearby Ankaful Psychiatric Hospital. Since then the camp has remained chain-free.

On a visit to the camp in September, Human Rights Watch spoke with Felix, above, an educated 46-year-old man who was among those freed in the camp. He was chained to a tree for five years, and continues to live there, free of chains, in a room of his own.

There are no clear figures on how many prayer camps exist in Ghana, the number that chain people with psychosocial disabilities, or the number of people in chains. Without a monitoring system, the camps operate with virtually no government oversight.

HRW insists that the government should immediately set up the monitoring system, described in the law as Visiting Committees, and provide adequate resources to conduct investigations to ensure that people with psychosocial disabilities are not subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or other abuses.

In parallel, the government should develop community-based mental health services based on the human rights principles of informed consent, dignity, and freedom from torture that enable people with psychosocial disabilities to live in the community. The government should also create public awareness campaigns to change the discriminatory attitudes toward people with psychosocial disabilities.

Barriga  said:

There is too much stigma and misunderstanding around mental health, leading to abuses against people with psychosocial disabilities, and no government body is watching. Oversight is more important than ever to make sure that people who have been freed from chains have their rights and dignity restored.

In a separate report, the BBC said that an investigation it carried out found that, in one case, a “prayer camp” is now putting those with mental health issues in cages.

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