NY Times spotlights mental illness in Western Africa

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In most of Western Africa, modern psychiatry is virtually nonexistent. In a two-part front page feature published October 11, the New York Times spotlighted various alternative treatments being provided to people with mental illness.

The reporters’ description of Togo-based “Jesus is the Solution” prayer camp is enough to make most western disability activists cringe.

“The church grounds here sprawled through a strange dreamlike forest. More than 150 men and women were chained by the ankle to a tree or concrete block, a short walk from the central place of worship,” the N.Y. Times article begins. “Most were experiencing the fearsome delusions of schizophrenia.

“On a recent visit, some glared, while others slept or muttered to themselves. A few pushed to their feet and gestured wildly, their cries piercing the stillness.”

The chaining of people with disabilities as a form of treatment violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which most Western African countries have ratified. Nonetheless, Togo alone is home to at least nine such prayer camps, where people are chained, and the only treatment offered are communal prayers, often attended by hundreds of community members.

For global health organizations, treatment for mental health conditions has traditionally received less attention than physical disabilities and infectious diseases. However, the United Nations in September, for the first time, adopted a developmental goal to “promote mental health and well-being” and reduce premature deaths from mental disorders by one-third by 2030.

Global health experts speculate that families often turn to prayer camps and other nonscientific treatments due to lack of options, especially in areas with severe shortages of affordable drugs and psychiatrists. Togo, for example, is believed to have four individuals practicing psychiatry. In Sierra Leone, the number is believed to be zero.

As a result, a variety of outside mental health group organizations have begun providing support in the region, many employing a mobile model relying on cheap drugs and increased public awareness. But as they know, progress largely hinges on their ability work with local communities to challenge misconceptions about mental health.

“The role of community is particularly important for mental health interventions in remote areas,” the N.Y. Times writes. “A village can effectively expel a program that offends its traditional conceptions of mental problems, just as it can expel a disruptive person with mental illness, experts say. But the same self-protective instinct can work to support new approaches if the community buys in.”

An accompanying N.Y. Times video, Praying for a Cure, can be seen here.