Human Rights Violations at Prayer Camps Force Questions About Mental Health Care in Ghana


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Camp leaders force mentally disabled and mentally ill patients to fast and chain them to trees.

NYANKUMASI, GHANA – An 11-year-old girl sits beneath a tree on a bed of bamboo. She cannot move because her ankles are chained to the tree, leaving cuts on her legs. Malnourished and unwashed, she pleads with passers-by for money to buy water and food.

The girl has lived at Jesus Divine Temple Prayer Camp in Nyankumasi, a town in Ghana’s Central region, for nearly a year. Her mother, Ama, says she brought her daughter there so that the camp’s prophet could heal her from a mental condition.

“Some people have attested to the fact that the prophet can cure these illnesses,” says Ama, referring to the camp’s director.

Ama does not know what type of mental disability her daughter has. She declined to give her surname or her daughter’s name to avoid stigma attached to mental disability in Ghana.

Ama says her daughter started acting abnormally after suffering a neck injury nearly a year ago. She had been playing with other children when a playmate hit her in the neck with a stone.

Worried, Ama brought her daughter to Ankaful Psychiatric Hospital in central Ghana, she says. But the hospital never diagnosed her mental condition. Despite two operations, Ama saw no improvement in her daughter’s mental health.

Faced with high costs of continuing treatment at the psychiatric hospital, Ama decided to bring her daughter to the prayer camp. The girl, who spends her entire day beneath the tree, does not say whether she wants to live there. Her mother brings her food every morning.

Ama says she believes that God will heal her daughter at the prayer camp.

“So far, I can see some improvements,” she says.

Traditional beliefs link mental disability and mental illness with the supernatural in Ghana, so families take relatives to prayer camps for treatment when they do not get results or cannot afford care at psychiatric institutions. Yet activists report that camp conditions and practices violate human rights, which camp administrators defend as divine healing methods or attribute to a lack of resources. Mental health researchers urge the government to enforce an international convention and national policies that regulate these camps, while religious leaders call for public education on the causes of mental disability and mental illness.

There are more than 2.15 million people living with mental disabilities in Ghana, according to the country’s mental health profile on the World Health Organization’s website.

There is no official data on the number of prayer camps in Ghana. But researchers estimate that several hundred exist throughout the country, according to a 2012 report published by international advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

The Rev. Opoku Onyinah is the chairman of the Church of Pentecost, an international religious body headquartered in Accra, Ghana’s capital, as well as the chairman of the Ghana Evangelism Committee, a movement of churches that organizes retreats and prayer sessions. Onyinah contributed to the Human Rights Watch report and spoke in Accra to commemorate the report’s launch in October 2012.

During his presentation, Onyinah said that people visited prayer camps to seek advice from spiritual leaders when they were not satisfied with mental health treatment in hospitals.

“When people face challenges, they want to find their causes,” he said. “They therefore find spiritual consultants to diagnose their problems.” 

Onyinah traced this custom to the traditional practice of divinatory consultations, or “abisa,” as it was historically known in the Akan language. A concerned person visited a shrine to consult a priest known as the “akomfo.” Now, prophets of prayer camps fill the traditional roles of the akomfo.

The Rev. John Neumann Tettehfio is a priest at St. Maurice Catholic Church in Accra. He says that traditional beliefs and modern Christian doctrine both support the belief that the supernatural may cause radical changes in behavior.

“The church’s opinion on demonology explains that demons or witchcraft does exist, and it could manifest in any kind of behavior, including mentality,” Tettehfio says.

But Tettehfio draws a distinction between supernatural possession and clinical mental illness or mental disability. It is difficult to attribute all behavior to witchcraft, he says. Instead, people should seek medical help as well as spiritual guidance regarding mental health issues.

“This is because if the cause is spiritual, it will be taken care of through prayers, and if it is medical, that will also be taken care of,” Tettehfio says. “A two-way approach is better than simply concentrating on one aspect and locking patients in prayer camps.”

Human Rights Watch’s 2012 report – “‘Like a Death Sentence’: Abuses against Persons with Mental Disabilities in Ghana” – describes the living conditions of thousands of mentally disabled people living in prayer camps. Camp administrators often confine patients against their will and do not give them adequate food, shelter or medical care.

Medi Ssengooba, a Finberg fellow at Human Rights Watch, is the author of the report. He conducted interviews with patients and prayer camp administrators throughout Ghana and says that prayer camps often prioritize spiritual and religious activities over medical treatment.

“People with mental disabilities at these camps do not receive any medical treatment,” Ssengooba says. “In some cases, such treatment is prohibited, even when prescribed by a medical doctor.”

Leo Badu established Jesus Divine Temple Prayer Camp in 1985. He serves as the camp’s pastor and spiritual director and refers to himself as Prophet Badu. Badu says that he administers spiritual treatment.

“Families bring their wards and relatives who are suffering from mental disabilities for deliverance, healing and divine intervention from God,” Badu says. “I do this through prayers, which are done at dawn, and also asking the patient to do dry fasting.”

The Human Rights Watch report defines dry fasting as abstention from water and food. Badu says that this is part of patients’ healing practice.

“It is a direction from God when we tell them to fast,” he says. “This is because they will be healed early, and the witchcraft will leave them.”

Camp administrators only use chains when the patients are aggressive or pose a risk to others, he says.

“We need to chain them because they can run away and go into the community,” he says. “When this happens, they can be harmful to the society.”

He removes the chains when he can see that patients are calm, he says.

Jonathan Kuntu Blankson, an associate pastor at Jesus Divine Temple Prayer Camp, assists Badu in his ministry and in the healing of patients. He has lived with Badu for the past two years and says he believes that they are performing God’s work at the camp.

The camp does not charge patients when they come for healing, Blankson says. Because the camps are private, they also do not receive financial support from the government. Instead, camp administrators must make do with the few resources they have.

As a result, administrators face a number of challenges when providing care to patients, Blankson says. Projects to improve the conditions at the camp progress slowly, such as the stalled construction of a shed and cubicles to provide adequate shelter to patients.

“We have been building the place for over six months,” Blankson says. “But due to lack of finance and building materials, we have put the construction on hold.”

Currently, patients live in the open and sleep on bamboo beds. Chained patients must relieve themselves in a bucket near their bed, and all patients use a piece of polythene rubber to protect themselves from rain.

Some relatives abandon their family members at the camp, which causes additional financial strain, Blankson says.

“Some of the families don’t believe that their sons or daughters are healed completely,” Blankson says, “and they are afraid that the sickness will come again, so they leave them.”

Human rights activists and religious leaders call for an improvement in the lives of the mentally disabled in Ghana.

The government of Ghana formally ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2012, which includes the right of mentally disabled people to choose their place of residence, Ssengooba says.

“It is important for administrators of prayer camps to end the use of chaining, forced fasting and any form of forced detention,” Ssengooba says.

Dan Osman Mwin, head of public relations at the Ministry of Health in Accra, says during a phone interview that Ghana’s new Mental Health Act of 2012 addresses human rights violations in prayer camps. It formally establishes a Mental Health Authority, which has the power to propose and implement mental health legislation.

One provision in the act states that this authority must collaborate with providers of unorthodox mental health care, such as prayer camp administrators, to ensure that conditions are humane. The act also empowers the minister of health to regulate prayer camps, which the act refers to as “spiritual mental health facilities,” to ensure that they meet standards of patient welfare and environmental hygiene.

Prayer camp leaders should seek spiritually and medically approved methods of caring for patients, Tettehfio says. For example, Catholic theology does not condone fasting for sick people, and patients in the camps may be acting wildly because administrators force them to starve.

“I believe the mental illness is a disability of the mind,” Tettehfio says. “For the brain to function well, the individual needs food to survive.”

Although spiritual guidance is important, the public must learn that mental disability and mental illness are not the same as supernatural possession, Tettehfio says.

“If people get to know that mental disability has nothing to do with witchcraft and is rather a medical condition, life will be much easier,” he says. “The stigma against persons with mental disabilities will gradually be a thing of the past, and families will not be forced to abandon their wards in prayer camps or mental institutions.”