Like much of the developing world, mental healthcare is lacking in Ghana. Mental illnesses are deeply stigmatized and widely misunderstood, and access to mental health professionals and infrastructure is limited. Although the recent passing of the innovative Mental Health Bill lays the legal framework for the required changes, steep challenges remain.
Ghana spends 2.58 per cent of an already small health budget on mental health. Accordingly, Ghana has only three publically-funded mental health hospitals. The hospitals are all old, overcrowded, and located in the southern part of the country. Consequently, they fail to provide adequate care for the estimated 250,000 people that need treatment in the country.
Pantang Hospital, the newest in the country, was built in 1975 and is located just outside Accra. Ankaful Hospital was built in 1965 and is located in Cape Coast, 150 km outside Accra. The largest hospital, the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, was built in 1906 and is located in the centre of the capital. It only has a capacity for 600-800 patients, but currently houses close to 1,000. It’s a condition that “compromises the comfort and general well-being of patients and constitutes an appreciable strain on [the hospital’s] resources, staff and funds,” according to the hospital’s website.
There are also only twelve psychiatrists working within the government system, many of which perform only administrative duties. There are fewer than 500 psychiatric nurses, more than half of which are located in the mental hospitals, leaving the rest of Ghana wanting.
The result of the widely unavailable care is that many rely on traditional healers, especially in the more rural and impoverished northern parts of the country. Their methods vary from prayers to exorcisms to human rights abuses.
“We’ve seen people who have cuts on their bodies that have festered into sores… It’s all under the guise of treatment,” said Peter Yaro, the Executive Director of BasicNeeds Ghana, an NGO that seeks to “ensure people with mental illnesses and their families live and work successfully in their communities,” according to Yaro.
“We have seen people who are shackled and left in the open, rain or shine for days. We’ve seen people who have been locked in rooms for days, months, and years. They ease themselves there, they eat there, and they sleep there. And nobody bothers to do anything about it until it’s reported to us,” he added.
BasicNeeds has been operating in Ghana since 2002 and has since expanded to six out of Ghana’s ten regions. It strives to improve access to appropriate treatment, teach people with mental health conditions to support themselves, give people suffering from mental illness a political voice, and address the fiend that exacerbates all mental health problems in Ghana – the monstrous social stigma that surrounds the issue.
In Ghana, people with mental health issues are widely misunderstood and mistreated. People view mental illness as anything from a deserved consequence of a spiritual transgression to a contagious condition that will infect anyone who works in the field. As a result, they are discriminated against and marginalized, Yaro explained.
“The moment you are seen as mentally ill you are seen to be less human.… People think you can’t even feel,” he said. There is also little understanding of, or interest in, proper treatment.
“For those who know about the hospitals, they come and dump you there. For those who don’t know about the hospitals, they dump you at the traditional healer so they can move on with their life,” Yaro said.
The social stigma also affects the professionals who work in the field. Unlike other medical specialties, psychiatry is not prestigious. “It’s not attractive. It has no status, socially,” said Yaro. Because of this, and the fact that many people still think mental illness is contagious, few choose careers in the field.
The Mental Health Bill – the government’s plan to address these pressing issues – was finally passed on March 2, 2012. Originally drafted with help from the World Health Organization, the Bill meandered through parliament for eight years.
It emphasizes community based treatment over institutionalization. This is very important because up until the Bill was passed, the legislation that guided Ghana’s mental health service plan had changed little since the colonial Lunatic Asylum Ordinance made in 1888, explained Yaro.
“The national health policy under which mental health services are provided is not only arcane, but very bad,” he said. “We’ve come a long way towards understanding what mental health issues are and the law needs to be retrofitted.”
The Bill also introduces regulations for both public and private care providers need to adhere to, legally protecting patients’ rights. It also calls for a decentralization of care centers and and seeks to battle the stigma through public education campaigns.
The passing of the Bill marked the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ghana was one of the original 80 countries to sign the convention in 2007 and activists and mental health care professionals eagerly awaited its ratification since.
“I don’t know how to express my joy. Eight years of anxiety, apprehension and patience- that is how I can describe my feeling now. If we knew that the bill would be passed today, we would have come here with buses full of people and thereafter paraded through the streets of Accra to exhibit our joy and appreciation,” said Dr Akwasi Osei, the Chief Psychiatrist of the Ghana Health Service, at the time of the Bill’s passing.
“The way the Bill is drafted means a revolution,” said Yaro. Although the Bill received Presidential Assent on June 8 and became law, the revolution is still coming.
The massive investment required for the full implementation of what is in the Bill seems unlikely in the near future. Ghana is a Lower-Middle Income country and its economy is largely dependent on foreign aid, which makes up 11.7 per cent of the country’s GDP, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its public health care system battles both corruption and a “chronic shortage of funding,” according to a 2008 Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation (ACCORD) report.
“We have to be optimistic, however one should not lose sight of the [challenges],” said Yaro. In the meantime he is happy with the progress made so far and will continue working with BasicNeeds as Ghana moves forward with its mental healthcare policy.