Background: The Global Movement for Mental Health has brought renewed attention to the neglect of people with mental illness within health policy worldwide. The maltreatment of the mentally ill in many low-income countries is widely reported within psychiatric hospitals, informal healing centres, and family homes. International agencies have called for the development of legislation and policy to address these abuses. However such initiatives exemplify a top-down approach to promoting human rights which historically has had limited impact at the level of those living with mental illness and their families.
Methods: This research forms part of a longitudinal anthropological study of people with severe mental illness in rural Ghana. Visits were made to over 40 households with a family member with mental illness, as well as churches, shrines, hospitals and clinics. Ethnographic methods included observation, conversation, semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions with people with mental illness, carers, healers, health workers and community members.
Results: Chaining and beating of the mentally ill was found to be commonplace in homes and treatment centres in the communities studied, as well as with-holding of food ('fasting'). However responses to mental illness were embedded within spiritual and moral perspectives and such treatment provoked little sanction at the local level. Families struggled to provide care for severely mentally ill relatives with very little support from formal health services. Psychiatric services were difficult to access, particularly in rural communities, and also seen to have limitations in their effectiveness. Traditional and faith healers remained highly popular despite the routine maltreatment of the mentally ill in their facilities.
Conclusion: Efforts to promote the human rights of those with mental illness must engage with the experiences of mental illness within communities affected in order to grasp how these may underpin the use of practices such as mechanical restraint. Interventions which operate at the local level with those living with mental illness within rural communities, as well as family members and healers, may have greater potential to effect change in the treatment of the mentally ill than legislation or investment in services alone.