If someone were to offer you a chance to stay at a “prayer camp,” what would you say? What would you think of? Maybe a bible study summer camp or a group retreat to worship together. If either of those were things that would interest you maybe a prayer camp would be something you might like, right? Wrong. Many people haven’t heard of prayer camps and have no idea what goes on there. I can tell you one thing—it isn’t somewhere that you want to be. African prayer camps are camps managed by self-proclaimed Christian prophets that promote spiritual healing, counseling, and most obviously, prayer. While that may sound like a healthy, natural, and safe method of healing, it isn’t. The people of Ghana specifically see this as the perfect alternative to medicine and treatment for the mentally ill, who they feel don’t have actual illnesses, and are instead victimized under the wrath of God, for whatever reason. Ghana’s psychiatric facilities, or lack of, also play a role in the popularity of prayer camps. Because of these conditions, prayer camps have popularly become places to admit people with mental disabilities. In these camps, the “patients” are being mistreated and tortured. Making global connections through non-profit organizations is one way we can work to raise awareness about the prayer camps in hopes of properly educating the Ghanaian people about the science of mental disorders, as well as to raise money to better the hospitals where medical treatment of mental illnesses can take place.
The proliferation of prayer camps was originally due to the misfortunes experienced by many African communities. Spirit mediums would be consulted for advice before things like war, with the belief that praying had the power to stop guns from functioning—basically praying to not be killed. Eventually these spirit mediums, also called prophets, expanded the power of their prayers to healing, claiming they could heal all sicknesses (Armah 1). Not only do these prophets have no health care training, but their treatments are more like torture than healing. There are a few different methods of healing these prophets use: chaining, forced seclusion, lack of shelter, and denial of food. You’re probably thinking how on earth could these be methods of healing? You’re not alone or crazy to think that—you’re right. It’s ludicrous, but it’s truth. Many mentally ill patients in the prayer camps were found crammed in small, hot, concrete rooms locked in chains to the ground or wall. Others were chained to trees in the woods all alone, exposed to the beating sun and mosquitoes. I’m not sure what’s better: to be secluded outside, tortured with some privacy, or to be tortured inside, sheltered, but amidst a crowd of others 24/7. Often, people in the prayer camps are put on a Fast and Pray Diet for days or even weeks at a time, which simply means they are starved and must pray for healing. Starving the patient means starving the evil spirits, which “make[s] it easier for the spirit of God to enter and do the healing”(Human Rights Watch 2). In a Ghanaian prayer camp, Doris Appiah, a young Ghanaian woman with bipolar disorder, was tethered by a rope to a wall for two months, left to starve, sleep, and defecate in the open (Irin 1).
“You think you are human, but people no longer think you are human” (Appiah).
Doris Appiah was put in the prayer camp at age 22 because her father believed that she was possessed by demons. Her treatment, the exploitation and torture, was conducted in hopes of eliminating Doris of these demons. In most cases, the mentally disabled are placed in prayer camps against their will by the police or their own families.
Though it’s true that many mentally ill people are forced into prayer camps because of their families’ superstitions, some see it as the only solution to healing. Admission into a psychiatric hospital in Ghana isn’t an option for everyone. Psychiatric hospitals aren’t only very expensive, but they run under just about as bad of conditions as the prayer camps do. The hospitals have a low patient capacity, and even with that, the ratio of doctors to patients is appallingly horrific; overcrowding is a serious problem. These facilities lack the necessary equipment to keep the premises clean and hygienic, resulting in inadequate drinking water, urine and fecal stench, and problems with flies and cockroaches. Many individuals are held in these hospitals against their will, just as they are in prayer camps, but here they are also forced to take failing treatment or those with harmful side effects. Some patients who refuse to take medication are beaten or sedated. Because of the lack of equipment and personnel, doctors and nurses work under stress and pressure that sometimes causes them to physically and verbally abuse patients. Harriet, a pregnant woman at Ankaful Psychiatric Hospital claimed that she was feeling a lot of pain while getting her blood drawn and said to a nurse, “You are killing me.” The nurse responded with, “If you shout again, I will put the needle in your mouth” (Human Rights Watch 2). For a while, Ghana’s Mental Health Decree hadn’t changed since 1972—it provides the mentally ill with no human rights.
If the images of these conditions aren’t enough to convince you how bad this problem is, let’s look at some numbers. It’s estimated that 2.8 million people in Ghana have mental disabilities. Of those 2.8 million, 650,000 are thought to have severe mental disabilities. And who’s there to care for the disabled? The psychiatric staff; however, there are only about 600 psychiatric nurses nationwide, and roughly 12 practicing psychiatrists nationwide. As of June 2013, Ghana only has three psychiatric hospitals, two of which have stopped admitting patients because of lack of funds. This has been one of the biggest contributors to the mental health problem in Ghana, with less than 1% of the national budget in 2011 dedicated to mental health care (Human Rights Watch 2). Mental illness can’t be extinguished without the proper tools, and it’s nearly impossible to fight a forest fire with a garden hose.
The Human Rights Watch has been working to implement new mental health laws in Ghana. For example, the Mental Health Act was implemented to place monitors in prayer camps and psychiatric hospitals to protect the rights of individuals (Kaledzi 1). Unfortunately, the abuses are still taking place despite human rights treaties being ratified. While efforts have been and are currently being made to place importance on mental health care in Ghana, there is still more that we can do. Agencies only do as much as their participants ask for. Organizations such as UNICEF and USAID are the types to start the kind of programs we’re looking for to help reform the treatment for the mentally disabled in Ghana. Do research, write letters, and tell them what you want. Join or work with an NGO. BasicNeeds Ghana is a non-governmental organization that aims to create awareness of the mental healthcare issues in Ghana. They call on government and civil society groups and work closely with the Ghana Health Services to ensure proper mental health services to individuals (BasicNeeds Ghana). On their website, www.basicneeds.org, you can explore all of the ways that you can help make a difference and join in the movement. Of course they are always accepting donations online, by phone, or through the mail, but why not really get involved by getting the word out to your community. BNG asks for volunteers for their Country Fund Program. Become a BasicNeeds ambassador in your own town or within your own local community or school organization by networking, fundraising, and coming up with new, innovative ideas to raise awareness. Any action that we can take to improve conditions in psychiatric hospitals and prayer camps is one step further to eliminating the excessive mental illness in Ghana, but more importantly, to eliminating the violations of human rights that follow.
You can be the answer to the call to destroy Ghana’s hypocrisy in healing.
Armah, Collins. "Prayer Camps and Superstitious Beliefs: a Challenge to Science and Technology in Africa." Modernghana.com. Modern Ghana, 24 Mar. 2009. Web. Nov. 2013.
Human Rights Watch. "Like a Death Sentence." Hrw.org. N.p., 2 Oct. 2012. Web. Nov. 2013.
IRIN. "GHANA: Misery of “prayer Camps” for Mentally Ill." Irinnews.org. N.p., 4 Oct. 2012. Web. Nov. 2013
Kaledzi, Daniel. "Ghana's Mental Health Care Underfunded." Dw.de. Deutsche Welle, 24 June 2013. Web. Nov. 2013.
Basic Needs Ghana. Basicneeds.org. Basic Needs, n.d. Web. Nov. 2013.