Ghana's prayer camps: where the mentally ill are chained, starved and abused
Victoria is a 10-year-old girl with a mental disability who was put in Jesus Divine Temple (Nyakumasi) Prayer Camp in Ghana, where she was chained to a tree all day and slept on a mat in an open compound. Photo credit: Shantha Rau Barriga/Human Rights Watch
"I have been chained in one sitting position. I have been here for two years."
In January 2012, a 28-year-old man named Isaac uttered these two devastating sentences to a Human Rights Watch researcher visiting the Nyakumasi Prayer Camp in Ghana.
Isaac has schizophrenia, making him one of Ghana's estimated 2.8 million people suffering from mental disabilities. He is also one of 169 people interviewed by Human Rights Watch for their 2012 report on the abuse of Ghanaians suffering from mental health disorders.
In Ghana, there are only three psychiatric hospitals and 12 practising psychiatrists serving a country of about 25 million. Many Ghanaians who suffer from mental illness therefore wind up being "treated" at one of Ghana's hundreds — or possibly even thousands — of prayer camps.
These camps are completely unregulated and run by self-professed prophets and religious leaders. According to Human Rights Watch, they "claim to be able to cure persons having various conditions, including cancer, infertility ,and physical or mental disability, through prayer and other non-medical techniques."
But the human rights watchdog found that many patients are being forcibly confined and subject to all kinds of abuses at the camps. They learned that patients, including young children, are being chained up for days, months or even years — and forced to sleep, bathe and defecate in the very same spot.
The mentally ill are also deprived of food and water because camp officials believe that fasting can cure mental illness. As one pastor explained to Human Rights Watch, denying food "helps weaken the demons, making it easier for the spirit of God to enter and do the healing."
At Heavenly Ministries Spiritual Revival and Healing Center in Ghana, some people with presumed mental disabilities lived in buildings with cubicles for each resident and were chained to walls. They could not leave the cubicles without permission of the staff at the prayer camp. Photo credit: Shantha Rau Barriga/Human Rights Watch
Ghana's prayer camps are believed to have first emerged in the '20s and are associated with the pentecostal and evangelical churches that have proliferated across the country. According to medical journal The Lancet, which picked up the story of Ghana's prayer camps in its latest issue, 28 per cent of Ghanaians now belong to either the Charismatic or Pentecostal denomination.
As Lancet reporter Jocelyn Edwards writes:
"With 96% of the population professing some faith, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, Ghana is the most religious society in the world. Mental illness is seen as a spiritual problem, driving the families of those with mental problems to seek spiritual solutions."
In June 2012, Ghana passed its first Mental Health Act, in part to address the problem of the prayer camps. The hope is that prayer camps will be registered and regulated, and that staff will be trained to recognize mental health cases and refer them to hospitals.
But Ghana still only has three public psychiatric hospitals — and they have their own slew of issues.
And as Human Rights Watch points out, Ghana lacks a system for enforcing the Mental Health Act; in November, they urged the government to implement the act by the end of 2013 (it did not). The UN's special rapporteur on torture also urged Ghana to implement the act in November after touring some of the country's prayer camps — unsettling visits that left him "deeply concerned."
Enforcing the mental health act will certainly make a difference but education must be part of Ghana's solution too. In the Lancet piece, Max Vardon, head of Ghana's National Council on Persons with Disability, said he believes the key is to stamp out the superstitions that allow these prayer camps to thrive in the first place. As long as the population believes mental illness is caused by supernatural forces, they will continue seeking supernatural solutions, he told Edwards.
Side note: For me, this issue brings to mind a piece I recently wrote about mental health in Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country sandwiched between India and China. During my visit to the country in June, I didn't see any evidence of abusive sites like Ghana's prayer camps — but similar to Ghana, many Bhutanese also believe that mental illnesses are caused by supernatural forces.
This belief system is a major challenge for Bhutan's first psychiatrist, Dr. Chencho Dorji — who, by the way, saw his own brother locked up for more than a decade after he began exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia. To read Chencho's story, and how he is tackling misconceptions about mental health in Bhutan, you can find my story here.