Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the government of Ghana to take immediate steps to end shackling of people with real or perceived mental health conditions.
Although Ghana’s government banned the chaining and inhumane treatment of people with mental health conditions in 2017, Human Rights Watch says that the country has not done enough to enforce the ban. The human rights organisation has documented numerous cases in which people with mental health conditions have been chained, beaten, and otherwise mistreated. In some cases, families have had to pay to have their loved ones released from chains.
Human Rights Watch is calling on Ghana’s government to take steps to enforce the ban on chaining and inhuman treatment of people with mental health conditions. The organisation is also calling on the government to provide adequate resources for mental health care, so that people with mental health conditions can get the treatment they need.
It has been ten years since Ghana adopted the 2012 Mental Health Act, which establishes a regulatory framework to ensure that all Ghanaians have access to mental health care. In spite of this, the government has only recently established regional Visiting Committees and a Mental Health Tribunal, both of which are tasked with monitoring implementation of the law and investigating complaints. This lack of progress is deeply troubling, given the serious mental health needs of the Ghanaian people. The government must urgently invest in mental health care, in order to provide relief to those who are suffering and to prevent further deterioration of mental health in Ghana.
“Chaining people with psychosocial disabilities in prayer camps and healing centers is a form of torture,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Ghana’s newly formed Visiting Committees and Mental Health Tribunal need to ensure that the chains come off and that people have access to local services that respect the rights of people with mental health conditions.”
Barriga noted that people with mental health conditions are often marginalised and discriminated against in Ghana, and that many end up in prayer camps and healing centres because they lack access to quality mental health care. “Prayer camps and healing centres are not equipped to provide the kind of care that people with mental health conditions need,” she said.
Human Rights Watch visited five prayer camps and traditional healing centres in Eastern and Central region from November 28 to 30, 2022. They interviewed more than 50 people, including people with psychosocial disabilities, mental health professionals, staff at prayer camps and traditional healing centres, mental health advocates, religious leaders, and two senior government officials.
The purpose of the visits was to gather information about the conditions in the prayer camps and traditional healing centres, and to assess the level of care and treatment that people with psychosocial disabilities receive.
HRW found that people with psychosocial disabilities are routinely detained in prayer camps and traditional healing centres, often for months or years at a time.
In all five camps and healing centres visited, Human Rights Watch found that people were chained or confined in small cages, in some cases for more than seven months. This practice was especially prevalent in the northern part of the country, where people are often kept in inhuman conditions and denied basic necessities like food, water, and access to toilets.
During the visits, Human Rights Watch identified more than 60 people who were chained or caged, including some children. In some cases, people were so cramped in their cages that they could not lie down or stand up straight. Others said they were only unchained for brief periods each day to eat or relieve themselves. Some had been chained for so long that their skin had grown over the metal links.
At Edwuma Wo Wo Ho Herbal Center in Senya Beraku, Human Rights Watch found 22 men closely detained in a dark, stifling room, all of them with chains, no longer than half a metre, around their ankles. They are forced to urinate and defecate in a small bucket passed around the room. Despite the sweltering conditions, they are only allowed to bathe every two weeks. The men told Human Rights Watch that they are only allowed out of the room for a few minutes each day, and are not given any medical attention. It is clear that the conditions in which they are being held amount to torture.
The men locked up in the Mauritanian mental health facility were desperate. Many of them called out to the Human Rights Watch researchers, begging to be released. “Please help us,” one man said, “we have a human right to freedom.”
The men had been committed to the facility by family members or religious leaders because they were considered mentally ill,
and because their communities have limited, if any, mental health services. In some cases, the family member may have been using drugs such as marijuana; in others, they were outcasts because of so-called deviant behaviour.
The Mental Health Society of Ghana and other local NGOs are pushing for greater investment in mental health services, especially for those with psychosocial disabilities. These organisations are providing training for the Visiting Committees and Mental Health Tribunal, and establishing community support networks in 6 out of the 16 regions of Ghana. Basic Needs Ghana is facilitating peer support groups to help those with mental illness. These groups provide valuable support and assistance to members, and help to raise awareness of mental health issues in the community.
The government of Ghana should take immediate steps to end the shackling of people with mental health conditions by ensuring that the Visiting Committees and Mental Health Tribunal have adequate resources to carry out their responsibilities and by investing in community mental health services that respect human rights, Human Rights Watch said.
The shackling of people with mental health conditions is a serious human rights violation that can cause immense physical and psychological suffering. The government of Ghana has an obligation to protect the rights of all people with mental health conditions, and ensuring that they are not shackled is a vital part of that obligation.
The Visiting Committees and Mental Health Tribunal are responsible for ensuring that people with mental health conditions are not unlawfully shackled.
Mental health is a critical issue facing many countries around the world. In Ghana, mental health is often ignored or misunderstood, and people with mental health conditions often face stigma and discrimination.
The government has a responsibility to ensure that all citizens have access to mental health services. The government should also ensure that people with psychosocial disabilities get adequate support for housing, independent living, and job training. The government should follow through on commitments to sensitise traditional and faith-based healers as well as the general public to combat the stigma associated with mental health conditions. Finally, the government should set up the levy envisaged under the 2012 Mental Health Act to fund mental health services as a matter of priority.
Ghana has a long history of abuse against people with psychosocial disabilities, including chaining them up in inhumane conditions. Despite a ban on this practice, the government has failed to ensure that it no longer occurs. The Visiting Committees and Tribunal have an important role to play in putting an end to these abuses.