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Misunderstandings about mental illness are causing human rights abuses
January 30, 2017

Head with Gears

As a mental health nurse in Ghana, 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow Emmanuel Kofi Danso is acutely aware of how much his community and others across Africa need to do to raise awareness of mental disease. Especially since the stigma associated with it is sometimes used to excuse inhumane conditions.

“I have one phrase that I always say: ‘People with mental illness are just like everyone else.’ They can be treated. It can be managed,” he said.

Many see mental illnesses such as depression, psychosis or bipolar disorders as something infectious. Even worse, some think you can never recover from them. Danso said this belief has caused patients who have been diagnosed or received treatment to be turned out of their own houses. It also causes many people who need help not to seek it.

“We all suffer from mental illness in one way or the other. Depression is irrespective of any person. It doesn’t respect anyone. We all get depressed at one time or another. It can be treated and managed the same way anything can be treated and managed,” Danso said.

Danso noted that Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that no one should be “subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Because of stigma, he has seen this right violated when the victim has a mental illness.

“I have pictures showing clients who have been chained to trees for years, doing everything while being chained — bathing, eating, sleeping — all while being chained,” he said. This has occurred in places where they were supposed to have been receiving help and was sometimes fueled by uneducated clergy or caregivers who see mental illness as “something taboo — that you caused it and are bringing it on yourself,” he said.

In other cases, abuse happens when there is a lack of staff or resources at facilities.

“Even with seeking hospital treatment, sometimes human rights abuses occur where some wards are overfilled. For example, a ward that is supposed to take care of 50 people can have about 250 people,” Danso said. He also noted that in his local community clinic he is one of only three nurses trying to help 855 patients.

“The stigma is everywhere,” he said. Because mental illness is seen as permanent and untreatable, many are reluctant to enter his profession and others feel that spending money to make improvements is a bad investment. As a result, “families are suffering, and patients are suffering, and not getting the right or proper treatment.”

Danso and other mental health professionals are working hard to educate communities through organizations, churches, schools and mosques to try to dispel misconceptions about mental illness and explain what kinds of treatments are available.

“People with mental illness should not be turned away. They are great assets. They can do many things. They can create music. They do calculations. They can do everything that a normal person can do, and sometimes I even see they can do it better,” he said.

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The views and opinions expressed here belong to the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.