'Mental health in Ghana : stigma, discrimination and superstition' - by Perrine Maillot, 31.10.2022
On June 24th, I hosted a presentation in front of a class full of students on mental health and the stigma around it. I was aware of how sensitive a topic it was and took every precaution to ensure the information in the presentation was correct and relevant to schoolchildren aged 9 to 17. I was adamant on presenting such a topic as it is near and dear to my heart but I hadn’t expected it to be so hard. It was then that the cultural difference truly hit me. All my assumptions about mental health and what to do when you’re struggling were crumbling apart.
I remember adding to the presentation that you could find a therapist if you needed to ever talk to someone but I was advised against it because it is simply not something that you do here. Then what are you supposed to do when you feel down, hopeless ? What happens when you have a mental illness that requires a regular check-up with a professional ? When I visited the Trust Clinic at Adenta I remember seeing a poster saying that the clinic for psychological issues was only open on Wednesdays. What happens the rest of the week ? Upon doing more research on the matter, I realised it was a problem in all of Ghana.
First, the government hasn’t allocated a lot of its budget to mental health and there is little to none institutions dedicated to mental health. Despite a 2012 parliament act to implement appropriate policies for the treatment of people suffering from mental illnesses, most of the institutions are present only in Accra and most of the staff is not trained accordingly. The lack of institutions mean that a lot of people suffering from mental illnesses end up roaming the streets, left untreated and considered pariahs.
Second, mental health in general suffers from a lot of misconceptions and is still a big taboo in the country. Most people believe mental illnesses are caused by supernatural forces, which leads them to send mentally ill people to prayer camps. Most of the research done in Ghana to tackle the stigma around mental health talks about the case of Doris Appiah Danquah in the 1970s all the way to the 1990s. As a medical student she experienced manic depression and was sent to several Christian prayer camps by her parents, being chained, beaten, isolated, locked up. Her testimony has been adapted into a movie produced in 2014 by the Christian Health Association of Ghana.
These misconceptions are a result of a lack of education on the subject. Most school curricula do not deal with mental illnesses and this, added to the stigma perpetuated by society, reinforces stereotypes around mental illnesses and people who suffer from them. Mental health is still somewhat of a taboo everywhere in the world but I believe that the stigma is lifting little by little, thanks to people opening up about their experience in therapy, researches done on mental illnesses as well as media portrayals.
When I hosted my presentation on mental health in front of the schoolchildren of Adenkrebi, they were all attentive and interested. All the apprehension that I had, the stress of not knowing whether what I was going to say would be relevant or relatable to them disappeared. I spoke about the importance of maintaining your mental health as well as your physical health, the different symptoms of mental illnesses, ways to cope when you’re struggling. When I asked them, in a game of myth busting, if they believed mentally ill people were “crazy” they said no. To me that was already a big step in the right direction. There is still a long way to go but I am glad to see organisations such as AFAWI fight discrimination and stigma around such vital issues.
The stigma of mental illness in Southern Ghana: attitudes of the urban population and patients’ views, Antonia Barke, Seth Nyarko and Dorothee Klecha, The stigma of mental illness in Southern Ghana: attitudes of the urban population and patients’ views - PMC (nih.gov)
Mental illness, stigma and disability rights in Ghana, Magnus Mfoafo M’Carthy and Jeff D Grishow, Chapter 5_2017.fm (ghanadisability.com)
Mental illness, stigma and disability rights in Ghana  ADRY 6, Mental illness, stigma and disability rights in Ghana  ADRY 6 (saflii.org)