Human Rights News Opinion

Protecting the Human Rights of Individuals with Mental Disorders!!!

Fatoumatta: May marks Mental Health Month, a time for proactive steps! It’s an opportunity to elevate awareness, foster understanding, and highlight the significance of mental health. Mental health is not a mere luxury; it’s an integral part of our overall health. Now is the moment to place our mental health at the forefront, unapologetically.

During Mental Health Month, we should ponder the value of self-care, empathy, and comprehension. As Mamudu eloquently put it, “You are not alone. Your feelings are valid. Seek assistance when necessary. You’re stronger than you think.” It’s perfectly acceptable to seek support, engage in mindfulness, or converse with a friend for mental upkeep. Everyone is worthy of support and kindness.

Should you or someone you know be in distress, act now! Extend a hand and secure the support required. Let’s persist in disseminating awareness and benevolence to enhance the world for all. We are resilient, and we are in command of our mental health.

Fatoumatta:Felije Danso was shirtless, his skin so encrusted with dirt that it seemed his last bath was in the previous rainy season, not by choice but due to exposure to the elements. His trousers, cut off below the knees and in tatters, barely clung to his waist. He hauled a heavy bag filled with discarded items. As he walked past, the stench was overwhelming, akin to decay. On a second look, I noticed the rear of his trousers was entirely gone, exposing parts of his body that are usually concealed. Swinging between his legs was something that flipped side to side with each step he took.

A bus halted at the stop, and more than a dozen individuals alighted. They brushed past him as they made their way across the street to Serekunda, the city’s largest and most bustling shopping hub. They seemed unaware of his suffering, as if he were invisible. The thought struck me: what happens when he becomes sick? Does he merely lie down to perish?

It’s easy to assume this is an isolated incident of a mentally ill person wandering the streets, subsisting on refuse. Regrettably, this is the common lot of many mentally ill individuals in the Gambia. They live exposed to the elements, surviving on the scraps discarded by society. For those accustomed to the portrayals on television, it’s not about finding a partially eaten cheeseburger and a soda can in a trash bin. It’s about scavenging for decayed ‘matter’ on the bare ground or in the sparse waste disposal zones at markets. How can Gambians stand by and allow their own kin to endure such dehumanizing conditions simply because they have a cognitive impairment?

Sometimes, people treat their pet dogs much better than their own siblings, providing shelter, food, and even medical (veterinary) care for their pets, while denying these necessities to their fellow humans. A multitude of factors has led to the abandonment of many mentally ill individuals on the streets of the Gambia. It is my understanding that the Gambia government ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on July 6, 2015, thus committing to uphold the rights of all citizens, including those with mental health conditions. However, the Gambia’s mental health system is still regulated by the outdated “Suspected Lunatic Act” of 1942, which fails to protect the human rights of people with mental disorders. This legislation was originally enacted to ‘safeguard’ the public from those perceived as ‘dangerous’ by isolating them and depriving them of their human rights. In 2004, the Gambia government, in collaboration with the WHO, began developing a Mental Health policy and strategic plan for the country.

Fatoumatta: In countries with robust legal and economic systems, individuals with mental illness are supported by the state through various means, such as supported living accommodations or mental health institutions. This ensures their access to food, health facilities, and societal amenities. However, in The Gambia, the situation is different. Those with mental illnesses receive minimal social services. They lack advocacy, especially when compared to individuals with physical disabilities, and discussing mental illness is nearly taboo. Society often views those with mental illness as less human, denying them basic rights. Cultural beliefs and misconceptions frequently attribute mental illness to witchcraft. Conditions like major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are more prevalent than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. Contrary to common belief, most mental illnesses are treatable or manageable. The primary challenge for those affected is the negative societal attitudes and a lack of support for managing their conditions.

Individuals fortunate enough to access health facilities often find themselves in overcrowded, run-down, and unsanitary psychiatric wards. The Tanka Tanka psychiatric hospital, which replaced the old Campama mental home, has faced allegations of unlawfully detaining patients for extended periods and administering strong psychiatric drugs that may hinder long-term recovery. The evidence of serious human rights violations within the community, traditional psychiatric facilities, and the justice system is overwhelming.

There is a pressing need for education, advocacy, and sensitization programs throughout the country, grounded in human rights standards, to dispel myths surrounding mental illness. These programs should be led by individuals with mental health conditions, among others, and include training for community leaders, traditional healers, families, and caregivers. Additionally, it is crucial to create opportunities for social entrepreneurship, supported employment, and other income-generating and community empowerment initiatives for individuals with mental health conditions to help break the cycle of poverty and discrimination.

Fatoumatta: Individuals with mental illnesses require access to mental healthcare services at the primary care level, tailored to their rights and specific needs. Additionally, any allegations of abuse or mistreatment of people with mental health issues must be swiftly and thoroughly investigated, regardless of whether the alleged abuse occurred in the community, traditional healthcare settings, psychiatric institutions, or within the justice system.

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