January 19, 2012

Prayer Camps to Treat Mental Illness in Ghana

Alice Bradley, GHLI volunteer

Recently, I had the great opportunity to serve as a research assistant with the GHLI during a trip to Ghana to observe the state of mental health in that country. So many aspects about my trip with GHLI to Ghana were memorable, but it was the tour of Mt. Horeb Prayer Camp that I remember most vividly.

These religious communities (varying denominations) offer treatment to people with mental illness. They are a popular alternative to psychiatric hospitals, with 70 prayer camps just in Greater Accra. The camp leaders view mental disorders as demons inside a person and do not use psychiatric medication, but rather a regimen of fasting, prayer, and beatings to expel the demons.

Beginning our tour, I expected to be immediately outraged, but instead I was caught off guard with the natural beauty of the jungle setting and the camp’s feeling of community. There was a market, people laughing, flowers, goats, and colorful buildings. Our guide had a big grandfatherly smile. I could almost imagine the appeal of this peaceful community.

Unfortunately, the peaceful feeling came to an end as we approached the “sanitorium.”

Although warned about the use of chains, it was horrifying when I actually saw the inhumane methods used to restrain patients. In the small, bare building, there were ten men lying on the ground. Each man had a short chain on his leg that was bolted into the ground. The stench was suffocating, and a gutter ran across the room- it was the only bathroom the men had. One emaciated man (forced to fast) begged for help. Our guide explained the chain’s purposes: they ensured residents would not escape (many were forcefully brought to the camp by family) and they were a symbol: when you defeated the demon you would be freed of your chains.

Before leaving the camp, the director greeted us with a handshake and a smile, saying “God bless you.” The camp shocked me with its extreme contradictions. How could a place in such a gorgeous natural setting that seemed so peaceful and quiet employ such unimaginable tactics? This stark contrast is what made the prayer camp the most unsettling part of our trip to me.

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