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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Without a mental health act

So here I am, just past the halfway mark. When I came out to Ghana, I think that a bit of me expected that , although on the surface we might have some different ways of doing things, essentially I would realise that this was all just superficial, cultural fluff and underneath it all, patients, doctors, nurses...we are all the same all over the world! And indeed, I have been struck by many interesting similarities between the practice of Psychiatry in Ghana and the UK. Firstly, and this probably shouldn’t have surprised me (!), major mental illnesses such as Schizophrenia and Bipolar Affective Disorder present here very much as they do at home.

The psychopathology is pretty much identical, although admittedly the lag time between the appearance of symptoms and first presentation to a mental health professional is much longer here, as patients and families tend to exhaust all other potential treatment avenues before consulting a medical doctor. This usually includes some kind of “spiritual” intervention such as a residential spell at a Christian prayer camp, or the more traditional option of having rituals performed by a local fetish priest (and I promise I will return to this another time). Disorders such as mild to moderate depression and anxiety do not tend to make it as far as a psychiatrist here like in the UK, and perhaps this is because they are adequately dealt will by some other non-medical means?

Another similarity is the frequent and ubiquitous co-morbid use of cannabis in young men who present with psychotic disorders. Other forms of substance abuse do not seem to be as visible as they are in the west, but that might be just a matter of time. Furthermore, just as in the UK, the patient’s family performs an essential role in caring for and supporting the person through illness. And probably the family’s role is even more prominent and important here in many cases, as there is no social welfare system to fall back on, and community psychiatric services in Ghana are currently so spartan as to be non-existent.

It appears to be unusual for someone to live alone here, even in the capital Accra. Patients generally stay with their families and extended families. It is the family that brings the patient to clinic (and sometimes the family come to clinic without the patient), it is the family that buys their medications and administers them (sometimes by hiding the drugs in their food without their knowledge), and maybe inevitably, and certainly understandably, it the family that comes along to the hospital saying “we can’t cope any more- please admit him and give us a rest”; of course that also happens sometimes at home. However, a few days ago two brothers came into my outpatient clinic room, carrying between them their floridly manic relative, wearing only his underpants and chained at the feet and wrists with manacles. They literally dropped him at my feet. It is at times like these, realise that you are not in Kansas (or Hampstead) any more, Dorothy.

So the differences, the differences...where do I begin? I am not even going to mention the discrepancies in financial and human resource- that is obviously a given. Clearly the biggest difference is the lack of a functioning mental health act currently in Ghana, although as I may have mentioned previously, there is a new Bill trying to be passed through parliament at this very moment. As a western psychiatrist, you perhaps become habituated to the fact that mental health act legislation, and its guiding principles, form a solid framework for much of your daily decision making. And that isn’t to mention the amount of time we spend at tribunals, writing reports, reviewing sections etc. So what is it like when that legal framework isn’t there? The other day George, one of the MAs, asked me to come to the ward with him to review a patient. In short, she was a lady who had previously been given a diagnosis of delusional disorder, but due to the sustained deterioration in her social functioning and increasingly bizarre nature of her symptoms, we both agreed that schizophrenia was a more fitting diagnosis.

Interesting, this lady had recently been admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Europe, under the mental health act, but whilst on ward leave had managed to abscond and fly back home to Ghana; her relatives had helpfully sent us some information from this hospital admission. The lady had no insight, was delusional and paranoid, and had lost a considerable amount of weight over the previous few months, with an associated significant deterioration in her self-care. She was acutely unwell, putting her health at risk, and she was very clear that she would not cooperate with treatment voluntarily; indeed, a concerted effort to engage her therapeutically during her previous admission had failed. I was clear in my mind that we should give her a chance to have a course of treatment and I knew that this would probably involve treating her against her will. But I found it very hard to make this decision alone, even when I knew that I was using the same legal framework as in the UK in my head. It felt precarious and a much more uncomfortable decision to make solo. We ended up discussing the case at the weekly multi-disciplinary case conference, which I have managed to re-start. The central question that we asked those assembled was “under what grounds can you justify detaining and treating a patient without their explicit consent?” It took the nurses and MAs quite a bit of prompting to come round to the themes of active mental disorder and acute risk to self, others and/or health. Several people suggested that lack of insight might be reason enough.

Without a mental health act, patients do not get a say. And I am aware that any service users reading this might feel strongly that even with our mental health act, they still don’t get adequately heard. But here, you can be brought to hospital off the street as a “vagrant admission” and without any family to advocate for you, still find yourself in hospital 15 years later because you have nowhere else to go and nobody wondering very much why you have been in hospital for so long.
Local fishermen
You can be admitted to hospital on the whim of a judge who thinks that you “might be acting a bit strangely”, and again find yourself in a different kind of prison for an indefinite period. If your family admit you into hospital, and then decide that they can’t look after you any more, well, they just need to leave a false address and phone number, and then make themselves scarce, leaving you, the patient, with precious few options. That is, if your family can afford to bring you the long journey to hospital at all. So many times since I have been in Africa, I have reflected on the NHS and the services that we are able to provide. When I left the UK, the future of the NHS was the topic of ongoing fierce political debate and I know that this continues. It probably sounds like the most utterly clichéd and corny thing that somebody could say after working in a developing country, but maybe that is because it is true: we have literally no idea how good we have it.

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About this blog

Susie Easton

Hello, my name is Susie Easton and I am an ST6 on the UCL/Royal Free Hospital General Adult Psychiatry Rotation in North London. I have just got my CCT and when I return from Ghana, I will be moving home to Glasgow to take up my first consultant post.

When I saw the Ghana post advertised, I thought that it looked interesting, a bit scarey and an opportunity for a professional and personal adventure.

This personal blog reflects Dr Easton's own views, and not neccessarily the organisations that she is working with. However Dr Easton is indebted to the partnership between South West London and St Georges mental health Trust, the charity Challenges Worldwide and the Royal College of Psychiatrists for providing an opportunity to take part in this excellent project. She is also very grateful to Dr Peter Hughes for his regular and invaluable clinial electronic supervision, Challenges Worldwide for their excellent logistical support, and Dr Anna Dzadney the Medical Director at Pantang hospital for making her feel so welcome. And last but not least, she is indebted to the Ghanaian Medical Assistants with whom she works, for helping her learn about how mental illness in West Africa.