On Monday, 2 October 2023, the Mental Health Authority (MHA) gathered media practitioners in the conference hall of the Ministry of Health (MoH) for the press launch of this year’s Mental Health Week celebrations.
As speakers took turns addressing stakeholders at the event, they put a sober emphasis on two important expectations. Compassion for mentally ill persons. And respect for their rights.
Behind the speakers’ wooden lectern hung a screen emblazoned with the theme for the celebrations: “Mental Health is a Universal Human Right”.
And with each word pronounced as strongly as possible for effect, the speeches delivered from the foot of the podium penetrated the packed hall and got down well with the audience.
The ceremony ended with the MHA’s Board Chairperson, Estelle M. Appiah, declaring the Mental Health Week celebrations launched.
Then, the press took interviews as the other participants exchanged greetings and contacts in the background.
Gradually, the curtain fell on the event and the hall was empty and dark again.
But a few hours later, in broad daylight, a mentally ill man suddenly rushed at a billboard on a highway at Madina, a town in Ghana’s capital city of Accra.
He held the billboard by one of its poles and hit his own head hard against it several times.
Then, he picked up big stones from the road side and banged them repeatedly on his own head with both hands.
He was speaking incoherently to himself as he banged. The more he banged, the more he bled from the head.
As blood streamed out from the fresh cuts on his head in the hot weather, he suddenly turned his face to some bystanders who were watching him.
At that moment, the bystanders broke into a spontaneous flight from the scene through unapproved routes and at an unrehearsed speed.
Then, he extended his rampage to some shops around, damaging everything he found.
Although his name remains unknown to many people, the mostly shirtless man is a familiar face in the area. He has been out on the streets for years, consistently wearing too much of hair on his head and a belt-less pair of shorts.
His violent action scared many traders into their shops. Some had a chance to lock their doors. Others had no chance.
Police team arrives
Before the rampaging young man may harm anyone else in addition to himself, the La Nkwantanang-Madina Divisional Police Command was notified.
The command, situated along the same highway, dispatched a team of police officers immediately to the scene.
The officers overpowered him, bound his hands with a rope, placed him in the canopied bucket of their patrol pickup and drove the vehicle towards their headquarters.
Soon after their departure from the scene, the frightened traders, who had locked themselves up in their shops, opened their doors slowly.
Still frightened, they were not in a hurry to step out of the ‘curfew’ to continue with their business.
The traders peeped first— much like a visibly scared and half-dressed Idi Amin (Joseph Ogola Olita) did behind a slightly opened door during his sudden overthrow in the movie Rise and Fall of Idi Amin— before they came out of their shops.
They stood in front of their shops, a number of them holding their waists in uninterrupted silence, and gazed at the pickup as it was making its way through the busy highway to the police headquarters.
When the officers arrived at their headquarters, the compassion and the respect for the rights of mentally ill persons, which were emphasised hours earlier at the Mental Health Week celebrations launch, were shown by the police command towards the mentally ill man.
The mentally ill man remained in the canopied bucket of the vehicle, both hands still tied. He was talking gibberish and mentioning names of colours in English fast and repetitively.
Despite his violent mood, police officers drew close to him and washed his head to clear away the streaks of blood that came out from his self-inflicted wounds. They also gave him water to drink.
He drank it from a sachet. And while planning how to take him to the nearest psychiatric facility, the Pantang Hospital, they also fed him.
The officers’ handling of the mentally ill man drew praises from individuals who were around to visit staff, relations and friends at the headquarters and, together with Media Without Borders, observed how he was handled by the police.
Stigma, discrimination still pose barriers— MHA’s Chief Executive Officer
It is not clear if the good treatment the police gave the mentally ill man was inspired through the media, or such handling was imbibed in the course of training as law enforcers.
But the MHA’s Chief Executive Officer, Dr Adwoa Pinaman Appau, clearly had underscored the power of the media in shaping the minds of the masses for society’s wellbeing at the press launch of the Mental Health Week celebrations hours earlier.
“Through responsible reporting and informed storytelling, you have the ability to reshape public attitudes, challenge stereotypes and foster a culture of compassion, understanding and acceptance.
“You have been, and continue to be, instrumental in the fight against stigma and discrimination within mental health circles. Let us unite our thoughts, minds and actions to live out the true meaning of mental health as a human right,” Dr Appau told the press at the launch.
“But let us not forget the care and compassion that must accompany our advocacy efforts. Persons with mental health illnesses often find themselves among the most vulnerable in society.
“Their ability to sometimes make sound decisions may be compromised, exposing them to neglect, abuse and exploitation. It is our duty as a community to ensure their protection, wellbeing and overall mental health,” she added.
‘Do unto mental health issues what you do unto other human rights issues’— CHAG challenges Ghanaians
On her part, the chairperson of the MHA’s board (mentioned earlier) said mental health, as a universal right, ought to be accessible and affordable.
But, according to her, the same right was not within the reach and the means of some mentally ill people owing to inadequate funding for mental health services, insufficient number of skilled mental health professionals and a lack of awareness of the mental health needs of the population.
“The social stigma is particularly of concern because it impedes help-seeking behaviour, hinders treatment adherence and exacerbates the severity of mental health conditions.
“In our effort to make mental health a human right, we must exhibit care and compassion to persons with mental illnesses, recognising that they are among the most vulnerable in our society,” Mrs. Appiah said.
“Doing this will help create a world in which mental health is recognised as essential to the overall wellbeing and development of each individual, irrespective of race, ethnicity, religion or social status,” she stated further.
When the Deputy Executive Director of the Christian Health Association of Ghana (CHAG), Dr James Duah, took over the podium to deliver a solidarity message, he announced that CHAG had established 140 mental health units at its facilities nationwide with the support of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
As the audience clapped and cheered CHAG for creating those units, Dr Duah added that the association had also trained two psychiatrists— one stationed in northern Ghana and the other in the south. And the cheers got louder.
The hall pulled back with concern when he revealed that the number of mentally ill people CHAG facilities received in 2022 alone exceeded 33,000.
But Dr Duah lamented that mental health campaign was being dealt a serious setback generally by a widely familiar unavailability of psychotropic medicines at mental health facilities as well as non-inclusion of some mental health services in the national health insurance coverage.
“One of the challenges that everybody here can attest to is the issue of psychotropic medicines. Create awareness, create demand for services, and people come to the facility, and after some time they are not getting psychotropic medicines.
“So, we undo all the gains we have made. They go back to the herbal treatment, the traditional treatment and so on. And some of the services not covered by national health insurance is an issue. And this is where we find the theme for this year’s celebration very appropriate,” he said.
An epidemic failure on the part of stakeholders to accord mental health issues the same priority attention being given to other human rights matters in the country apparently had been a source of worry to CHAG for a long time.
And the press launch of the Mental Health Week celebrations could not have been a less opportune platform for Dr Duah to get the chronic worry off CHAG’s chest.
“Today,” he began, “we want to challenge everybody here.”
“We hope, as CHAG, that the energy that we attach to other human rights issues, after the celebration of this year’s Mental Health Week, Ghanaians will attach the same passion and energy to mental health as a fundamental human right,” he stated.
Ghana will join the rest of the world next week— on October 10— to celebrate this year’s World Mental Health Day.
The ongoing Mental Health Week commemoration, organised by MHA, is sponsored by MoH, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Psychiatric Association of Ghana (PAG).
The other sponsors include the Office of the National Chief Imam of Ghana, the Ghana Health Service (GHS), CHAG, the Ghana Psychology Council and FCDO.
Source: Edward Adeti/Media Without Borders/mwbonline.org