Tag Archives: depression

Alternative Medicine in Ghana Part One: Sorcery versus Psychiatry

The mentally ill are often chained up in Ghana, like this woman suffering from depression

A young woman stands with her left foot chained to a tree in rural Ghana. Her wrap-around traditional cloth hangs loosely at her hips, and her breasts are exposed.

“Cover yourself,” Atete Atempon yells at the girl I’m now staring at.

The woman smiles a doped-up smile as two servants rush to unchain her. They know I’m quizzically wondering why she’s tied up and how she got there. They work hard to unshackle her so they can shoo her away before I start asking questions.

“She is not well,” says Atempon, as he orbits his hand around his ear to imply she’s lost her mind. Atempon is an herbalist at the prayer camp where the woman is being treated.

Finally, she is covered up, unchained and led away screaming.

In Ghana, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression are conditions rarely diagnosed. What is diagnosed, however, is the condition of being possessed by evil spirits. The belief in witchcraft and spiritualism is very much alive here. For someone to simply be mentally ill is not. As a result, most mentally ill end up in prayer camps such as this instead of receiving psychiatric care.

As treatment on the camps, they’re often given herbal mixtures or physically beaten until the demon is believed to have left the body. Or, they’re left secluded under a mango tree for weeks, as is the case with this nameless woman.

Her family left her here because she began exhibiting strange behavior after her former boyfriend reneged on his promise to marry her. What might be cured in Canada with a vat of ice cream, a session with a shrink or an anti-anxiety pill is treated a little differently in Suhulm, Ghana, where patients are chained up or fed herbal remedies until they’re no longer possessed—or broken-hearted.

As resident herbalist, Atempon treats patients with his special concoctions. He offers to show me his workspace and I eagerly agree. We cross the threshold of his laboratory of blood-red oils, leafy soups and bottles of herb-infused moonshine, to be ingested by or smeared on patients, and I ask him if he has a background in mental health.

“I know how to cure anything,” he says, averting the question. He tells me he not only cures AIDS, but also makes the insane sane. He looks at the tree where the woman was shackled. “In two weeks, the girl that was there will be fine.” His claims are lofty, but Atempon’s Ralph Lauren shirt and stacked gold rings tell me people pay him big for his work.

Dr. Akwasi Osei, chief psychiatrist at the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, has a different approach to mental illness. He believes in mainstream psychiatry that assesses a person’s mental state and considers any contributing social factors to their condition before suggesting treatment. According to Osei, about 2.4 million Ghanaians are living with mental illness, many of whom suffer quietly on the peripheries of society, in fringe communities like Suhulm.

Spiritual churches, prayer camps and other unorthodox institutions treating the mentally ill are rampant in Ghana. It’s a cheaper option than going to the hospital, and often the only option for most families who make less than $1.50 (CDN) a day. Dr. Osei laments that he and the World Health Organization, which also supports mainstream care, face a barrage of opposing views from the public in their battle to erase the stigma attached to mental illness.

But how do you convince an entire society that someone is not possessed but instead depressed, suffers from a chemical imbalance or simply has a case of the breakup blues in a country where a belief in witchcraft is so deeply engrained?

One way might be through legislation. In 2006, the Disability Bill was passed in Ghana to prevent mistreatment of the mentally ill, but abuses still abound and proper care remains widely unavailable. As it stands, Dr. Osei says only two per cent of people suffering from mental illness have access to adequate treatment.

There are a meager nine practising psychiatrists in all of Ghana, and they are stifled when it comes to reaching even half of all cases. What’s more, many are discouraged from becoming practising psychiatrists, according to Dr. Osei, because their peers believe gods and spirits rule the psyche of a person. Chemical imbalances seems obtuse to many in a country where the mental state of the individual is often put down to sorcery, not psychiatry.

That’s why this girl is chained to a mango tree. Patients waiting to see Atempon barely blink an eye at the chained insane. There is an undercurrent of acceptance; people in the waiting area sit like an audience ready to applaud at the wonder of the herbalist — seemingly making it a Gordian-knot of a problem to solve.

As I leave the compound, I hear the girl screaming as she is doused with cold water and barked at by her two keepers.

Atempon waves goodbye as his gold rings catch the sun and blind my gaze.

Discussing Sensitive Issues “Up Front”

"Up Front" with Precious Mercy

Saturday evenings at Kapital Radio are very busy for us. As I mentioned in one of my previous blogs, in addition to working on Mufty’s radio show “Know Your Rights” from 4-6 pm, we are also working on our colleague Mercy’s show “Up Front” from 8-9 pm. Her show is geared mainly towards youth and the topics include a variety of social issues. This week we discussed suicide and the factors influencing someone to commit suicide, following two highly-publicized stories in Ghanaian media. A 62 year-old well-respected Head Pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Kwadaso Nzema in Kumasi, Rev. Opoku Agyeman, allegedly shot and killed himself, and a 9 year-old-boy hung himself in the Amoamo community of the Ashanti Region after his mother threatened to punish him.

The panelists, Reverend and Spiritual Counsellor, Paul Chuks Udemba and Ghana Education Service (GES) Regional Guidance and Counselling Coordinator, Joe K. Koramteng, both had many interesting points to make about the public’s sentiments towards suicide and suicide prevention in Ghana.

Koramteng started by saying “All people are susceptible to suicide,” and listed psychological factors; such as irrational thoughts; social factors such as traumatic life events, loss of jobs and loved ones; unhealthy lifestyle choices such as drug and alcohol abuse; serious ailments such as HIV/AIDS; and abuse as the major factors. “There is always an underlying reason,” he said, adding that suicidal or mentally disturbed people are often generally written off as being “mad.”

Rev. Chuks Udemba offered a religious perspective and suggested that suicidal people are influenced by the “Spirit of Death.” They are overwhelmed by feelings of despair, which he claimed can be prevented through prayer, deliverance and counselling. Whether you hold religious beliefs or not, the importance of counselling and engaging suicidal and depressed people in open discussions about their problems was stressed by both our panel guests. Nevertheless, they also expressed their concerns about the misconceptions and stigmas surrounding suicide and depression in Ghana, as well as the lack of established trust they claimed Ghanaians have in each other.

I am reminded of a previous segment of “Up Front” when we discussed the benefits of “keeping a true friend.” We were surprised by our callers’ rather negative overall conclusion- it is not possible to keep a true friend because you can never truly trust anyone outside of your family.  However, in modern day Ghana (mostly in urban areas) where people are not as dependent on kinship ties and live more individualistic lives, seeking the support of trustworthy friends and talking out your problems with non-family members is very important, as Koramteng suggested. “Counsellors are also there to support suicidal people, but there is the [mis]conception that they only deal with marriage and relationship issues,” he said.

Although we did not receive as many calls or text messages from our listeners as we have on previous shows discussing more pleasant topic matter like love and relationships, I am very glad we examined suicide this week. Those who did call in had the chance to share their personal stories, struggles and feelings, and thanked Mercy for covering the sensitive topic. It is important to have public dialogue about unpleasant topics like suicide and the social stigmas that surround them. Open discussions encourage people to speak out and get the help they need. “Whatever the problem is with anyone, suicide is not an option. Whatever you are going through, someone else has already gone through it,” said Rev. Chuks Udemba.