The Daily Graphic on Monday, March 23, carried the headline: “Mental Health in crisis”. It gave the impression that we now have a crisis in mental health. As a matter of fact, mental health has always been in crisis in Ghana.
We have refused and even today refuse to accept the fact that mental ill health is as a normal affliction as backache or cancer. We talk freely about prostrate cancer but would not acknowledge mental ill health.
Today, many consult the doctor about mental cases but the majority still consider mental illness an affliction which requires “spiritual” intervention by the native doctor.
We should disabuse our minds of the idea that mental illness is a strange ill health. The Daily Graphic was right to highlight the observation of the Chief Psychiatrist that "at any time between 30 and 40 per cent of the population suffer from one mental health problem or another".
This means that many of our health problems are more of a matter of our mental state than we think. It is this realisation which will lead to adequate mental hospitals and more than four doctors in the public service.
The mental health hospital was known not long ago as the “Lunatic Asylum”. It was outside Accra, between the “native” quarters and the European Ridge. It gave the name to the area known as ‘Asylum Down’ and it was not a place you admitted that your relations and friends were.
We have come a long way from those days.
But the progress made is far from sufficient. We do not readily accept the fact that mental health is a normal affliction and that the mentally ill can be assisted to work just as those with duodenal ulcer can.
Many years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who had won a difficult case in court. Another friend asked me where the brilliant lawyer had his practice since he would like to consult him. When I said that he lived at the Asylum, he could not believe it.
This brilliant occasionally mentally ill lawyer came from a distinguished family of learning. The family did not feel embarrassed that one of their kind was in the mental hospital. He practised his law as part of the necessary therapy. Today, many of us would not readily admit that we have a relation in the mental hospital.
Many of the mentally ill need not be admitted in mental hospitals. Their treatment requires long hours of interaction with doctors and great understanding and assistance from relations and friends.
The power of the mind over the physical state is enormous. Many illnesses cannot be treated without dealing with the mental state. A gynaecologist friend of mine was telling me the other day how some women who wanted babies badly developed big bellies as if they were pregnant. The mind is more creative than we are prepared to believe.
The public attitude is crucial to the treatment of the mentally ill. “Lack of enough mental healthcare doctors” is not the only impediment to the treatment of patients with mental health problems.
Public understanding is most important. We have more schizophrenics among us than we realise. This should be of public concern. Treatment or management of such people requires public recognition, acceptance of the condition, knowledge and understanding.
We should rid ourselves of prejudices and do something about the crisis in mental health. As economic conditions deteriorate, the mental health of people will come under pressure. Mentally-related illnesses will increase. Doctors and hospital facilities alone cannot deal with the problem. We need public awareness and involvement.
The stresses of life in the modern world are great. Our leaders are often under severe pressure. Are they fit to take the decisions they take? These decisions affect us. We should ensure that our leaders enjoy good mental health.
We should abandon the taboo about mental illness. Public awareness of mental health should be spread. We should understand the problems and issues so that we maintain good mental health in society at large and within the national leadership.
Our present unsatisfactory national mindset may be related to the general mental health of the nation arising from the economic, social and political stresses of life. I welcome a symposium which took place at the Press Centre on April 2, 2009, which dealt with this and other matters.