Human Rights Watch released a report earlier this month documenting human rights abuses in Ghana's pentecostal and evangelical prayer camps. "Like a Death Sentence": Abuses Against Persons with Mental Disabilities in Ghana discusses the plight of persons with mental illness in Ghana's psychiatric facilities and residential prayer camps. For the purpose of this blog, I'd like to focus on Ghana's prayer camps and the problems reported therein.
The report describes these prayer camps as privately owned Christian institutions tied to pentecostal and evangelical denominations, often run by self-styled "prophets." The camps exist to to provide communities with counseling, spiritual healing, and charitable endeavors (i.e., orphan and elder care). Some camps attempt to heal people with mental health problems through prayer and traditional remedies, even though the "prophets" and staff often have little or no mental health care training. In a country where most citizens cannot afford psychiatric care, prayer camps provide a less expensive -- albeit problematic -- alternative.
Several hundred prayer camps exist, although the exact number is unknown because the camps are not regulated by the state. The Ghana Evangelism Committee has reportedly undertaken a survey to count the camps. Many of the camps are under the authority of the Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council (GPCC), which oversees Ghana's 122 churches and evangelical organizations. However, the report states that the GPCC's oversight of the prayer camps is limited. GPCC guidelines prohibit prayer camps from chaining or imposing fasting on ill residents, and dissociated from at least one camp (Edumfa Prayer Camp) for violating other standards.
After visiting eight Ghanan prayer camps between November 2011 and June 2012, Human Rights Watch found that people with mental illness often suffer human rights abuses such as involuntary admission, inadequate shelter, unhygienic conditions, chaining, forced fasting, and denial of medication. Even children were subjected to abuses such as chaining and forced fasting.
Most of the people with mental health problems interviewed at prayer camps by HRW were taken there involuntarily because they allegedly demonstrated confused, restless, or aggressive behavior. HRW found that at four prayer camps, residents were chained to floors, trees, or other structures until the religious leader in authority confirmed that they were "healed." Some respondents told HRW interviewers of forced fasting at the prayer camps. Staff and religious leaders at seven prayer camps insisted that fasting was necessary to starve evil spirits and facilitate divine healing.
At some prayer camps (i.e., the Jesus Divine Temple), staff and the "prophet" did not allow people with mental health problems to take prescription medication. One respondent said that this was because angels allegedly do not allow medication. Only one of the eight camps observed allowed medical care for residents with mental health problems.
Ghana has made efforts to improve the lives of persons with mental health problems. Ghana's 2012 Mental Health Act and ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are positive steps. However, no system currently exists to monitor prayer camps, the report states, so monitoring and stopping abuses at the camps remains problematic.
Human Rights Watch is not the first voice to decry human rights abuses at Ghana's prayer camps. According to a 2008 article in Modern Ghana, an investigation of Ghana's prayer camps by the Commission for Human Rights Initiative confirmed that many camps in the Volta and Central regions provided proper shelter, water, sanitation, and electricity. Unfortunately, it also found that many camps chained, physical abused, and denied food to mentally ill residents. These human rights abuses were justified by people at the camps as means of exorcising evil spirits.
A 2009 article in Global Health also stated that mentally ill residents at Ghana's prayer camps are sometimes chained, especially if they displayed aggression, wandered off, or behaved disruptively. Two Christian pastors argued that chains were necessary to restrain violent persons, while another claimed that he used chains because he could not afford to build structures to house mentally ill residents at his camp. However, the article was quick to add that chaining and shackling are not always means of restraining violent persons, but also as a means of punishment, since mental illness is commonly seen as a product of immoral behavior. Beatings of mentally ill residents served a similar punishing purpose.
In a commentary at the Ghanaian Chronicle, Helena Selby explained that many people in Ghana believe that evil spirits inflict mental illness, leading them to seek spiritual treatments for mentally ill loved ones. She lamented the poor conditions of prayer camps she visited, which included isolation and chaining. Selby decried the superstitions undergirding such prayer camps and called for greater public education regarding mental illness.
"The existence of numerous prayer camps in Ghana and their extreme stressing of their teachings on superstition have resulted in people veering away from the reality of mental illness. People get confused everyday as to what causes mental illness. If that be the case, perhaps public education by the government and stakeholders of mental health can help people have a better knowledge about mental illness."
These Christian prayer camps remind us of the dangers of labeling mental illness as a spiritual pathology, a tendency not limited to Ghana. I recall Pat Robertson's 2011 comments about mental illness, when he attributed depression to a lack of faith in God. I recall Therese J. Borchard's frustration with religious leaders who assured her that only faith is needed to dispel depression. Attributing mental illness to some spiritual shortcoming does a grave disservice to persons struggling with mental health issues. Mental illness does not stem from demonic possession or moral failings, but from organic and psychological causes.
However, the abuses taking place at prayer camps need to be understood in their Ghanaian context. Prayer camps' abuse of mentally ill residents seems to stem from superstition, mental illness stigma, and a dire lack of affordable, comprehensive mental health resources. These factors must be taken into account in order to craft an effective response to the prayer camps.
Pentecostal and evangelical leaders, both in Ghana and abroad, need to condemn human rights abuses in Ghana's prayer camps. Chaining, physical abuse, forced fasting, and other abuses are being perpetrated in the name of these faith traditions, which should alarm its adherents. Additionally, they must strive for public education on mental illness and funding for medically sound mental health services in countries such as Ghana. Ghanaians struggling with mental illness deserve no less.