HRW accuses Ghana of inaction in failing to prevent shackling of people with mental health problems

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At a traditional healing center in Ghana, Human Rights Watch found 22 men in a dark, suffocating room, all of them with chains, no more than half a meter long, around their ankles. – 2022 SHANTHA RAU BARRIGA/HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH

The NGO Human Right Watch (HRW) on Thursday accused the Government of Ghana of failing to take adequate measures by not preventing the shackling of people with mental health problems in the country.

After visiting five traditional healing camps in the central and eastern region of the African country, the organization has found that in all centers people with mental health problems were chained or confined in small cages, and that in some cases they had been so for more than seven months.

During visits, HRW identified that more than 60 people were chained or caged, including some children.

«Shackling people with psychosocial disabilities in prayer camps and healing centers is a form of torture,» said the NGO’s disability rights director, Shantha Rau Barriga.

«The newly formed Visiting Committees and Mental Health Tribunal in Ghana must ensure that the chains are broken and that people have access to local services that respect the rights of people with mental health problems,» Barriga said, citing a body recently formed by the country’s authorities to monitor implementation of the law and investigate complaints of human rights violations.

In the five camps visited by HRW, people were being held against their will, which amounts to indefinite detention. A 40-year-old man detained for more than two months at Mount Horeb Prayer Center said they spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, locked in a room.

«This Christmas we are not going home. We want to go home and be with our family. Help us. Please help us,» asked another man at the same facility.

Ghana’s Mental Health Act of 2012 states that people with psychosocial disabilities «shall not be subjected to torture, cruelty, forced labor or any other inhumane treatment,» including shackling.

The law also establishes visiting committees and a Mental Health Tribunal to monitor camps and traditional healing centers for compliance with the law.

Upon learning that the practice of shackling continues, Ghana’s Deputy Minister of Health, Tina Mensah, conveyed to the NGO her astonishment, «With all this education, they are still shackling?»

«People with mental health problems are human beings just like you and me. They are holders of their rights. A mental health diagnosis is not a death sentence. We should be investing in services in the community,» Caroline Amissah, interim executive director of the country’s Mental Health Authority, has told HRW.

Local non-governmental organizations, especially those led by people with psychosocial disabilities, have been active in pushing for improvements in mental health services and monitoring of existing facilities in Ghana.

The Mental Health Society of Ghana supports the training of Visiting Committees and the Mental Health Tribunal and advocates for greater investments in community mental health. MindFreedom Ghana is establishing community support networks in six of Ghana’s 16 regions. Another organization, Basic Needs Ghana, has been facilitating peer support groups.

«Despite the ban on shackling in Ghana, the government has failed to ensure that people with psychosocial disabilities no longer live in such inhumane conditions,» Barriga has said.

«The Visiting Committees and the Court have an important role to play in ensuring an end to these long-standing abuses,» he has added.