Faith-based healing centres in Ghana keep patients chained despite ban


Despite a 2017 ban, faith-based and traditional healing centres in Ghana continue to hold people with real or perceived mental health conditions in chains and in inhumane conditions.

“People with psychosocial disabilities are still chained like animals,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch.

“If the government wants its ban on chaining to be more than empty words, it needs to ensure that these chains come off and develop local mental health services that respect the rights of people with mental health conditions.”

From November 4 to 8, 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 people, including people with psychosocial disabilities, mental health professionals, staff at prayer camps and traditional healing centers, mental health advocates, religious leaders, and two senior government officials.

Of the six prayer camps or traditional healing centers across Ghana’s Greater Accra, Eastern, and Central regions Human Rights Watch visited, dozens of people were chained in two facilities. At both centers, men detained there called out to the Human Rights Watch researcher, begging to be released.

In one traditional healing center, Human Rights Watch found 16 men in a dark, stifling room, all of them with short chains, no longer than half a meter, around their ankles. They called out: “We are suffering here. They are abusing our human rights. Please help us. Please help us.”

At another prayer camp, people with real or perceived mental health conditions continue to be confined in cages that they are rarely allowed to leave, based on regular visits since 2011. They are forced to urinate or defecate in small buckets placed outside their cells.

In two other facilities, people with mental health conditions are not chained, but the head of each camp explained that they are denied food for up to seven days, based on the belief that “fasting” will enable them to use worship and prayers to heal them.

“The chaining of people with mental health conditions needs to stop – it needs to stop,” Ghana’s deputy health minister, Tina Mensah, told Human Rights Watch.

Similarly, in a meeting with Human Rights Watch, the gender, children and social protection minister, Cynthia Morrison, said, “I give you my commitment right now, and I’m sure we’ll bring an end to it.”

Human Rights has found, based on its research since 2011, that families often take people with real or perceived mental health conditions to faith-based or traditional healers because of widely held beliefs that such disabilities are caused by a curse or evil spirits, 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 behavior.

The head of Ghana’s Mental Health Authority, Dr.AkwasiOsei, announced on World Mental Health Day in 2017 that the government would enforce the 2012 Mental Health Act provision that people with psychosocial disabilities “shall not be subjected to torture, cruelty, forced labour and any other inhuman treatment,” including shackling. In a video with Human Rights Watch, he said it was “illegal to put anyone in chains.”

Human Rights Watch confirmed that people remain unchained in Nyankumasi prayer camp, where officials from the Ghana Mental Health Authority sawed the chains off the 16 residents in 2017. They now refer anyone in a mental health crisis who comes to the camp to the nearby psychiatric hospital.

The head of another center, Doctor Jesus Prayer Camp, told Human Rights Watch that they do not chain anyone because they are aware of the national ban.

Despite this progress, the government of Ghana should take further steps to end shackling by setting up the Visiting Committees outlined in the Mental Health Act to monitor prayer camps and traditional healing centers to enforce the ban, and by investing in community mental health services that respect human rights.

The government should also ensure that people with psychosocial disabilities get adequate support for housing, independent living, and job training. (Source: HRW)