Faith, prayer and mental health in Ghana: Harper's magazine provides even-handed story

In this month's issue, Harpers magazine has a piece about mental health care (or the lack thereof) in western Africa that touched quite deeply on religion and the efforts of some religious leaders to deal with the mentally ill.

What I thought would be an exposé on the gullibility of the ill who are taken in by religious charlatans actually turned out to be about a system where the only people with a plan to help the mentally ill are those same religious leaders.

Now, there have been exposés on Ghana’s horrific mental health facilities, but this piece took a different tack. The fact that certain Ghanaians' idea of healing involved prayer instead of medicine matters less than the fact that the places offered by these leaders are the only places to which the mentally ill can go with any hope of being cared for. Ghana is many decades behind the rest of the world in terms of any mental health care at all. The piece, which is called “A Prayer’s Chance: The scandal of mental health in West Africa,” tries to show what those in the "prayer camps" are doing about it.

Samuel Donkoh had just turned ten when he began to slip away. His brother Martin, two years his senior, first realized something was wrong during a game of soccer with a group of kids from the neighborhood. One minute Samuel was fine, dribbling the ball, and the next he was doubled over in spasms of laughter, as if reacting to a joke nobody else had heard. His teammates, baffled by the bizarre display, chuckled along with him, a response Samuel took for mockery. He grew threatening and belligerent, and Martin was forced to drag him home.
The episode marked the onset of a frightening metamorphosis. Martin couldn’t understand what was happening to his brother, for although he had seen many abodamfo (“mad” men and women, in the Twi dialect) on the streets, the conventional wisdom was that such maladies afflicted only those who deserved it -- excessive drinking or drug use was a popular explanation -- or were otherwise spiritually or morally compromised. Samuel, the sensitive, well-behaved son of devout born-again Christians, did not fit that mold. 

The article goes on to describe how his mother prays over Samuel -- even reprinting the exact psalm she turned to -- and sets up how the rest of the story will go.

What was to be done? The approach advocated by members of the Donkohs’ church -- prolonged fasting and that brand of combative, focused prayer known as spiritual warfare -- had brought little respite, but pursuing a medical route seemed fraught as well. Two of Agnes’s aunts had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and repeated stays at Ghana’s largest mental hospital, in the capital, Accra, had not helped them. Infamous for its chaotic atmosphere and rampant abuse, the hospital, built in 1906 by the British colonial regime as an asylum for the criminally insane, had rather aggravated their situation. One aunt died alone, a vagrant outcast; the other subsisted on the margins of her hometown. Agnes resolved that a similar fate would not befall Samuel.
A family friend suggested a drastic course of action. He urged them to seek treatment at Nazareth Prayer Centre, a distant religious retreat, or “prayer camp,” renowned as a place where people struck with madness could be cleansed of the demonic forces holding them captive. Spurred by the Pentecostal revival that swept West Africa during the 1990s, these rural camps — some of which allowed families to stay for months or even years on end — had come to serve as alternative sites of care in a region where health services, particularly mental health services, were notoriously scarce and underfunded…

Then Samuel’s oldest sister becomes similarly afflicted and the mother, who is the heroine of this story, decides to move her family to Nazareth. The next few pages of this very long piece tells of the heartbreaking decisions that Africans must face when mental illness runs in the family and what it means to take care of their sick children.

It really brings home the stark difference that the First World, which has no shortage of counselors and drugs, has with the Third World, where military coups and wars are common and a national mental health system is the furthest thing from the minds of those who govern such countries.

In the 1990s, as the new Pentecostal churches sought to fill the vacuum left by the state’s retreat from providing social services, the prayer camps began proliferating. Drawn by reports of sensational miracles, supplicants flocked to the mountains and forests in the south, where most of the camps were located. Some grew into enormous settlements as big as towns; others were ramshackle operations with little more than a signboard and a plot of land…The pastors and healers, prophets and prophetesses running the camps typically lived on site, where they were sustained by tithes, offerings, and consultation fees (and sometimes by farming and business initiatives). Several had close ties to major Pentecostal churches and denominations. 

This is a fascinating subculture of Christianity in the Global South, where the faith is reputed to more vibrant and faster-growing than its anemic cousins in the USA and Europe.

I was very taken with how the reporter sympathetically described how these prayer camps were run and how those running them did their best to help the mentally ill –- or demonically oppressed -– or both. The story traces this unhappy family through almost 20 years of their sojourns in and out of these camps as one daughter dies and a youngest daughter starts exhibiting schizophrenic symptoms. Still, helped by Bible stories about Israelites who persisted through 40 years in the desert, this family struggles on.

It eventually concludes in July 2016 when we meet a Pentecostal nurse who hates some of the abuses in these camps and wishes his fellow religionists would see that mental illness has biological, not spiritual origins. As this nurse talks with a caretaker at one of the worst camps, we need the mess these places are and the lack of help from really anyone who visits, including human-rights groups from the West.

He described how various journalists and delegations had visited the restraint home, taking notes, conducting interviews, snapping pictures. And every one of them left “without giving us so much as a mattress or a bag of rice, not even a single cedi to make things better here.”

It's an amazing piece, not the least because it portrays religion as both the problem and the solution to this unsolvable mess.

One wonders: What kind of reporter gets the time and money to wander about Africa to research such a piece? It turns out the article was written by a 2017 Luce/ACLS Fellow in Religion, Journalism and International Affairs at Emory University. I assume there was a grant in there somewhere to do the reporting this involved. 

If this was grant money, it was money well spent.

The article notes that most of the mental health care in Ghana -- such as it is -- is offered at religious camps; that Africans see things through a spiritual lens; that purely secular solutions might not work there and that the operators of the camps would be open to outside help were it available. And that that it's these Pentecostals who are so despised by foreign NGOs who may also be the key to salvaging their country's most deplored citizens.


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