There are only three psychiatric hospitals in Ghana. The west African country's first ever mental health act aims to extend rights to treatment and protection against discrimination for those suffering from a mental illness - but it is still some way from being effectively implemented.

This April 7th is World Health Day (as designated by the World Health Organisation), and this year’s theme is Universal Health Coverage, which means “all people getting quality health services, where and when they need them, without suffering financial hardship.”

While England and Wales are currently reviewing their own Mental Health Act, as recently as 2012 Ghana's parliament passed its first ever Mental Health Act. This brought into being a new and progressive Mental Health Law for Ghana, replacing an outdated decree from 1972. It aims to extend and formalise rights to treatment and protection against discrimination for those suffering from a mental illness.

Unfortunately, even today in Ghana it is not unheard of for people affected by mental illness to be kept in restraints in their homes – often due to limited awareness about mental health and difficulties accessing affordable treatment and support. For instance, there are only three psychiatric hospitals in Ghana, all of which are located along the Southern coastal belt, making it difficult for many people to access appropriate mental healthcare.

Over the past six years, several positive actions have been taken to implement it. A Mental Health Authority has been established, with a Board and Secretariat to govern it. Regional Coordinators for community mental health have been appointed to oversee mental health activities in Ghana’s regions and districts. Public and community awareness raising activities have been undertaken to disseminate knowledge about the implications and intentions of the Act.

Work in progress

Despite these efforts however, much remains to be done to implement the Law to the letter. As of today, the Legislative Instrument, which provides details on how the Act will be implemented, remains unapproved by Parliament and the dedicated fund for mental health provided for in the law has yet to be established. These are key aspects of the legislation that are crucial if the law is to fulfil its original purpose.

It is for this reason that BasicNeeds-Ghana (BNGh) continues to work with others to keep mental health high on the public and political agenda. BNGh has worked with the media to publicise the mental health law and an easy-to-read version of the Mental Health Act has been produced and distributed among community health workers, health institutions, local and traditional authorities and primary and secondary schools.

BNGh is also working with the civil society organisation ‘Alliance for Mental Health and Development’, to review the progress of the law and suggest next steps to ensure its implementation. Additionally, BNGh sits on the Mental Health Law technical reference group to provide the Government with expert knowledge and advice.

Strong, sustained advocacy will undoubtedly be key to ensuring the legislative instrument is approved and the Mental Health Fund is finally established. Maximising public platforms is incredibly important in this regard. In my role as Executive Director of BasicNeeds-Ghana, I met the Ghanaian Minister for Health at a recent health forum organised by JANSSEN of Johnson & Johnson Ltd and reiterated calls to ensure the full implementation of the Act. Such efforts are slowly but surely helping to shape the policy framework and strategic direction for Ghana’s mental health services, but we still have a lot more work to do.

BNGh has been assisted in this by funding support from UKaid and STAR-Ghana. This has enabled BNGh and its partners to maintain momentum in advocating for the implementation of the 2012 Mental Health Law, and it is my sincere hope that it won’t be long until our hard work starts to pay dividends. Ensuring this law works fully in practice is essential for ensuring all those living with a mental illness in Ghana, both now and in the future, receive the basic mental healthcare they require and deserve. On World Health Day this April we are especially mindful of this objective.

To find out more about BasicNeeds’ work and global mental health, visit www.basicneeds.org or follow BasicNeeds on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

Image: Self-help group meeting in Ghana - © BasicNeeds Ghana

Peter Badimak Yaro is Executive Director, BasicNeeds Ghana

#WorldHealthDay

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