When Koffi Gbedjeha, a carpenter and devoted family man living in Togo’s capital city, began having mental issues as a young adult, his family could think of only one solution.
They kidnapped him after drugging him with sedatives and brought him to a “prayer camp” in rural Togo, where he was shackled and chained to a tree so the spirits that had consumed him could be driven out by prayer, according to a 2015 article in the New York Times that detailed Gbedjeha’s struggle.
Gbedjeha wasn’t a prisoner; he had done nothing wrong. But in Togo, Ghana, and other Western African nations, mental health services are so scarce that many families still resort to shackling and prayer to drive out the demons they believe possess their relatives.
In Ghana, there are only 14 practicing psychiatrists for a population of over 26 million, according to the nonprofit Basic Needs, which advocates for better mental health services and end to shackling.
And there are an estimated 650,000 people in the country with mental disabilities, the medical journal Lancet reported in 2014. Many of them are "languishing" in the hundreds of prayer camps around the country, according to the journal.
“In Ghana people with mental health conditions are often considered as being possessed by evil spirits or demons,” writes the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch, which is currently campaigning to convince leaders of Ghana to end the practice of shackling mentally ill people. “In some camps, people are chained to trees, where they would bathe, defecate, urinate, eat, and sleep, some for years."
Earlier this year, the Ghanaian Mental Health Authority released 16 people, including girls as young as 12, who HRW had discovered being held in shackles at a prayer camp. The government brought them instead to a psychiatric hospital, following HRW’s investigation.
But HRW says that isolated interventions are not enough; the government should completely ban shackling and invest in community mental health services.
“There is an urgent need for government oversight of prayer camps and mental hospitals where people with mental health conditions are suffering horrific abuse,” the group said.
Shackling isn’t only found in rural Africa. Indonesia banned shackling as a treatment for the mentally ill in 1977, but according to The Guardian, nearly 20,000 individuals are still chained up anyway.
“Shackling people because of a real or perceived mental health condition is no way to treat a fellow human being,” Dan Taylor, director of MindFreedom Ghana, told HRW. “People with psychosocial disabilities deserve the same rights and dignity as anyone else. And this will require the government and donors to invest in support services at the community level.”
Gbedjeha eventually escaped from his own imprisonment in Togo after breaking free from the chains and running back to his family’s home village, according to the Times. There, they tried a different approach, taking him to a mental health clinic, where he was given antipsychotic medication.
He is now living back in his home village and hopes to open a carpentry shop one day, according to the Times.
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