More than once after arriving in Ghana, I was told it was a shame to begin a year-long journey there because I will never meet nicer people in another country. “You should have saved the best for last,” is what they said. After just a short time, I got it.
Ghanaians tend to work as a collectivist society where everyone looks out for each other. As you wander crowded streets, people step in and guide the way. There isn’t a consistent system of addresses commonly used. Instead, landmarks describe locations which makes the network of strangers as essential as GPS. This seems to work for locals, but is hard to navigate when you aren’t sure where you’re going in the first place. For me, this collective system of help was always needed to get from place to place. As for safety, I was also told that as long as someone is around, people are safe in Ghana because others will physically jump in to defend against injustices they see. Even the names of businesses and signs on storefronts showcase a spirit of general good will for others. Ghana is a special place.
If visiting a new country feels like swimming in an unfamiliar pool, then committing to do so while engaging in conversations about mental health is a bit like being pushed into the deep end. Navigating mental health openly can feel awkward when battling years of silence and stigma, but the added element of doing so in a less familiar place requires pushing yourself on a personal limb of outreach, listening, and learning. Even with that, I am aware that I am likely making unintentional mistakes along the way, which makes relationship-building an essential aspect of the Hope Travels project.
Despite this underlying challenge, wherever I turned, Ghanaians tossed lifesavers to guide me through learning about their current progress spreading mental health awareness, building advocacy networks, and creating spaces for hope. At the same time, they were open and anxious to share the significant challenges still to be faced.
My learning began during a visit to Accra Psychiatric Hospital where I was guided through the expansive compound by Emmanuel Aboagye. He shared how the stigma related to mental health runs deep in Ghana and that many of the patients who stay here have been dropped off indefinitely at the hospital and may never be seen by their families again. Fear of lingering curses, judgment by extended families, and a lack of resources can push families to make this painful decision. For this reason, Emmanuel believes that mental health outreach is a critical and urgent need in all available venues. Breaking stigma and spreading the message that, “It’s OK not to be OK,” is going to require a deliberate focus beyond the hospital to reach families, schools, churches, and local NGOs.
The hospital is broken into a variety of wards for women, men, children, and criminals. As we walked each ward, there was obvious disrepair, limited resources, and dated facilities. Emmanuel said that getting funding from the government is hard and housing people is different than providing funds needed for comprehensive care. Last year, the staff went on strike to fight for more facility resources – even though doing so left the hospital with only a bare bones staff and minimal care for patients. For them, the radical discomfort caused was the only way to be heard. Some additional funding was granted, but so much more is needed. People who work here are committed to doing the best with what they have, but feel stretched by the crisis.
There is a “vagrant” unit which houses people found on streets years ago when there was some funding available to do so. Sadly, the money dried up, and the people who live in this unit are those left behind – many who are named after the day of the week and place where they were found. At this point, most of the people are expected to spend the rest of their lives here.
Patients receive therapy during the day and access to medication. These are expensive services that are not readily available to most people who are struggling with mental health but live outside of the hospital.
There are some signs of growth at the hospital. An NGO recently funded an occupational therapy center that will open soon. The brand new tennis court looks slightly out of place now, but is a flag of hope for things to come.
As my visit ended, Emmanuel and I chatted and found much commonality centered on the need for advocacy and prevention services. He noted that self care and mental health support is essential for people who work at the hospital who often ignore their own needs to focus on others.
I asked Emmanuel how people can help and he said, “Honestly, anything helps because we need everything from basics like food and clothing.”
If you would like to learn more about Accra Psychiatric Hospital, you can contact Emmanuel Aboagye at firstname.lastname@example.org.