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Like a Death Sentence': Disturbing Report Exposes Ghana's Abuse of People With Mental Disabilities...Where's the Liberal Outrage?


The conditions appear to be worse than in some prisons.

Ghanians With Mental Disabilities Suffer in Institutions or 'Prayer Camps' (Photo credit: Human Rights Watch)

In today's day and age, a cause-celeb within the liberal establishment is its crusade for "human rights," typically with regard to what they consider inequity among minority groups, the LGBT community, and illegal immigrants. Yet the same liberals who excoriate conservatives for supporting traditional marriage, advocating for voter ID laws, or supporting tougher immigration reform, were curiously reticent when IKEA purged its entire Saudi-edition catalog of all images of women. In turn, the left is equally silent when it comes to the myriad human rights abuses taking place all over the world.

Take, for instance, Ghana, where people afflicted with mental disabilities are relegated to subhuman living conditions and treatment that, by any stretch, would constitute "torture" by Western standards. In a disturbing 84-page report issued at the beginning of October in which 170 Ghanaians participated, Human Rights Watch (HRW) exposed how life for the country's mentally disabled is "like a death sentence." Exacerbating the matter is the country's government, which is either willfully blind or outright complicit in the atrocities.

HRW's report titled, “‘Like a Death Sentence’: Abuses against Persons with Mental Disabilities in Ghana,” describes how thousands of Ghana's most severely affected people with mental disabilities are forced into psychiatric hospitals or "prayer camps," often against their will. Beyond poor sanitary conditions, sleep and food deprivation, forced electro-convulsive shock therapy (ECT) and a host of other physical abuse including being chained to trees in the hot sun or pouring rain for days, months or even years on end, appear to be par for the course. HRW explains:

In psychiatric hospitals, people with mental disabilities face overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. In some of the spiritual healing centers, popularly known as prayer camps, they are often chained to trees, frequently in the baking sun, and forced to fast for weeks as part of a “healing process,” while being denied access to medications.

According to the report, Ghana's afflicted are often ostracized from their respective communities, lack sustenance, shelter and health care and ultimately find themselves in a position where they've nowhere to turn for proper care.

“The government needs to take immediate steps to end abuses against people with mental disabilities in institutions, prayer camps, and the community,” Medi Ssengooba, Finberg fellow at Human Rights Watch said in an official press release. “The conditions in which many people with mental disabilities live in Ghana are inhuman and degrading.”

With The World Health Organization estimating that 3 million Ghanaians suffer from mental illness -- 600,000 of which are severely affected, the country only houses three public psychiatric hospitals and eight prayer camps. The HRW report goes on to explain that the three hospitals combined only support 1,000 patients. Given the abhorrent conditions of the facilities, however, it may actually be small consolation that so many others disabled Ghanaians are left to their own devices.

HRW reports that in all three of the institutions, "filthy conditions, with foul odors in some wards or even feces on the floors due to broken sewage systems," were found. "The hospital in Accra was severely overcrowded and many people spent all day outside the hospital building in the hot sun, with little or no shade," HRW's press release stated.

The report also uncovered that "at least hundreds – and possibly thousands" of people suffering with mental disabilities are institutionalized in prayer camps associated with Pentecostal churches "managed by self-proclaimed prophets." The camps operate outside government control, and given the atrocities committed there, likely operate outside any official Pentecostal church purview as well.

At the camps, according to HRW, people with mental disabilities "do not receive any medical treatment – in some, such treatment is prohibited even when prescribed by a medical doctor." Rather, the self-appointed "prophets" will seek to "cure" those suffering through purges -- essentially exorcisms -- and effect change "through miracles, consultation with 'angels,' and spiritual healing." Disturbingly, that spiritual healing appears to consist of even worse abuse than in the country's mental institutions.

"Nearly all residents were chained by their ankles to trees in open compounds, where they slept, urinated, and defecated and bathed," the report states.

"Some had been at the prayer camps for as long as five months. As part of the 'healing process,' people with mental disabilities in these camps – including children under age 10 – are routinely forced to fast for weeks, usually starting with 36 hours of so-called dry-fasting, denied even water."

One of 170 Ghanaians interviewed by HRW, Doris Appiah, experienced life both at the prayer camps and in the country's dismal psychiatric institutions over the span of 10 years. While in the prayer camps, Appiah, who reportedly suffers from bi-polar disorder, was bound by rope for over two months and "forced to take harmful local herbs, which caused side effects to her tongue."

"As soon as you get a mental disability, you nearly lose all your rights, even to give your opinion," Appiah told HRW in a recorded interview before explaining that calls on government to monitor and regulate conditions at the prayer camps and mental hospitals have gone unanswered.

The HRW report also explains that although Ghana ratified "the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities" in July 2012, which states that countries must ensure people suffering from mental disabilities be allowed to choose for themselves whether or not to be institutionalized, there are loopholes through which the authorities operate nefariously. HRW explains:

Ghana’s 2012 Mental Health Act, which went into effect in June, creates a system through which people with disabilities can challenge their detention in psychiatric hospitals. However, the law does not apply to prayer camps, leaving residents without legal remedies to seek release. In most prayer camps, residents may only leave when the prophet deems them healed.

The act also allows forced admission and treatment in psychiatric hospitals and promotes guardianship as opposed to supported decision-making, which limits people with mental disabilities from making their own decisions. Both are inconsistent with the Disability Rights Convention.

While some human rights advocates have applauded Ghana for ratifying its convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, corruption, inefficiency and a failure to truly oversee and regulate the country's mental health facilities and prayer camps leave the core problem undressed.

When one considers the array of human rights abuses that occur across Africa and the Middle East, it is a wonder why the West's champions for human rights have remained deafeningly silent in the face of true atrocities.

While the U.S. may not be a perfect nation, and indeed has its own blemished history when it comes to the treatment of people suffering from mental disabilities, the West's humanity and ability to right its wrongs often goes unsung by progressive solons. Perhaps these occasional reminders of the living conditions endured by people in other parts of the world will bode well for those who only seem focused on America, Israel, or other Western nations' so-called "abuses."

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