The coronavirus pandemic is a global health crisis like no other since the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. The pandemic has reached every corner of the globe and undeniably induced fear, anxiety and changed the way we live. The implications cut across all dimensions of life; economic, physical, social and a consequential mental health decline among the populace. After a surge in numbers of COVID-19 infections earlier this year and a brief flattening of the curve, the world is again experiencing a new wave. The Ghana Health Service (GHS) at the time of writing this article put the figure of total confirmed cases at 50,874.
While the emphasis has been on containing the COVID-19 virus and its physical threats, there have been studies of the emerging psychological impact which many experts predict will persist for months or even years to come after a vaccine becomes available and the pandemic successfully contained. The reasons being that mental health conditions can have debilitating effects and take a life time to manage.
Most people find themselves helpless in these times and would turn anywhere to find help. Faith based organisations (both organized religion and traditional healers) have always played a role in Ghanaian society. Faith healers use herbal remedies, spiritual engagements, prayers, fasting, use of oils, candles and holy water.
People patronize these indigenous, faith and allopathic healing systems for the treatment of illness as they advertise themselves as the point of call in times of ‘unexplained’ crisis which they are always quick to give spiritual connotations. These groups have in the past claimed to have cures for ailments and many have observed their growing popularity in this pandemic times.
One factor that has contributed to this include the fact that the world has yet to find a cure or a reliable way to contain the virus. Faith based groups sell themselves on this basis. It then comes as no surprise that they would use these times and their influence to lure the vulnerable to their camps. Perceived high cost of biomedical services also make faith-based healers an appealing alternative as they offer flexible modes of payment including barter trade.
Within faith-based healing systems, mental illness is construed as resulting from the influence of spiritual entities whose purpose is to cause harm or to punish the individual for some wrongdoing. Persons with mental health challenges have always not had the best of treatment with these groups, with reports of some patients being held without dignity and in some extreme cases in chains.
In this article, we use the Wikipedia explanation of a mental disorder (mental illnessor psychiatric disorder) as ‘a behavioral or mental pattern that causes significant distress or impairment of personal functioning.’
According to Dr. Leveana Gyimah of the Pantang Hospital, persons with lived experience of mental illness may be at a higher risk of contracting and transmitting the Coronavirus. This is because patients with severe mental health conditions do not have the capacity to care for themselves.
“When a person is confused or disinhibited,” Dr. Gyimah explains, “maintaining social distance or ensuring they wear a face mask can be difficult.” Education and reassurance is important to keep them at ease and promote their mental wellbeing.
It is one thing to have good intentions and another to be helpful. However, the unregulated practices of some of these faith-based healers raise questions and cause a lot of concerns, especially since we are dealing with a contagious virus.
One is forced to ask if these groups follow COVID-19 safety protocols. For a highly contagious virus, it can be daunting to ensure the safety of patients, staff and their families even in non-orthodox treatment centres. This calls for stringent precautions and ensuring social distancing, wearing appropriate PPEs and keeping them intact while a patient is receiving care.
This is why the Mental Health Society of Ghana (MEHSOG), a non-governmental organization, in partnership with Open Society for West Africa (OSIWA), and Open Society Foundation, are calling on government to unconditionally free all persons with mental health problems in faith-based camps.
Executive Secretary of MEHSOG, Humphrey Koffie Martey says he has been told in confidence by some service users at these camps that owners of the camps are admitting more inmates than their facilities can contain, claiming they can protect their followers from the coronavirus.
“This means there’s overcrowding and no covid-19 protocols are observed”, he explained.
While living with a mental health problem in itself is challenging, it could be even more difficult for service users to adhere to protocols when those who are to enforce it are themselves ignoring it due to material gains.
This puts those in their care at risk of contracting the corona virus and spreading it.
Mr Martey said considering that freedom of religion and association is a basic right, no one can be forced to pursue any form of treatment. However, as the Mental Health Authority (MHA) seeks to collaborate with the non-orthodox treatment centers to provide care for service users, stringent measures should be instituted to regulate their activities in order to protect the vulnerable in their care.
Through awareness creation, he said, most of these service users can be put in the proper care of professional mental health workers.
Mr Martey also emphasized a fact unknown to many that mental health outpatient services are available in the regional and district hospitals across the country.
He said most of these units or wings at the regional levels have 10-beds capacity that can take on those who are very sick and need to be on admission. He called on the Mental Health Authority (MHA) and the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection to respond to the growing demands for non-orthodox mental healthcare in the wake of the pandemic.
By Dorcas Efe Mensah