MONROVIA – The Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Health along with its partners, the World Health Organization(WHO), Migrants As Messengers of the International Organization for Migration(IOM), Carter Center, and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital yesterday, Monday, October 11, 2021, commemorated the observance of the World Mental Health Day, held at the premises of the old Catherine Mills Rehabilitation in Paynesville, Montserrado County with stakeholders and other participants expressing serious dismay on the deplorable state of mental health system and calling on government to vote more resources to correct near neglect of the situation.
The program brought together government officials in the health sector, including Dr. Francis Katei, Chief Medical Officer of Liberia, Medical practitioners, representatives from both local and international non-governmental organizations including those from the United Nations system, Civil societies, educators, community based organizations , youth groups, community dwellers and students.
According to the Davidetta Parker, Chairperson of the Program Planning Committee and Administrator of ES Grant Hospital, this year’s celebration is to highlight the present state of affairs of mental health in the country and bring together government officials, international development partners and other stakeholders so as to set a road map of how to craft out policy and programs for the improvement of the mental health in the country.
“We are holding this program in this place, the first facility to handle cases of mental related challenges but over the years, the place has been abandoned, especially owing to the civil war. So, this is like a way of bringing everybody together at this place so as to restrategize the way forward”, she said.
Delivering the Keynote address at the Program, Ms Bendu Yates, who is an outpatient from the ES Grant Hospital, traced the history how issue of addressing mental health came about in the country and the poor state it has become over the years especially since the war years that seriously and negatively impacted on facilities being provided for improvement of mental health in the country. She said in 1962 the Government of Liberia received a donation of 90 acres of land in Paynesville from Ellen Mills Scarborough to establish a state of the art mental health facility in the country named it Catherine Mills, mother of Ellen, who was said to be a mentally challenged lady. She said it was a 75 bed facility and equipped to cater to those who had mental issues at the time. It was functional up to the war and got ransacked and looted and replaced by the JFKMC/ES Grant Mental Hospital.
Madam Yates decried the height at which discrimination and stigmatization people with mental disabilities are subjected in the country to the extent that it has become a normal thing that people in that category of life are being told to live in isolation. She said this is cumbersome and will only exacerbate the healthy conditions the people are engulfed in.
The keynote speaker also expressed dismay over the poor budgetary allocation and other support towards mental health in the country and called on the government to do the needful to increase funding to it just like other sectors of the economy.
As a way forward, she recommended among other things that the government should add mental health on the health priority list of the country by investing in mental health services as it is done in other health programs, renovate the Catherine Mills Mental Health Rehabilitation Center, create more awareness programs to stop the stigma and discrimination against people living with mental illness as well as that members of the national legislature must see the need and act now to increase the budgetary allocation for mental health services in the national health budget in the country.
Speaking on behalf of the government, Deputy Minister of Health and Chief Medical Officer of Liberia, Dr. Francis Kateh thanked the organizers of the program for the efforts put in place for a successful execution. He also thanked the development partners who over the years have identified with the mental health project and seek for more support to solve most of the challenges facing the area of the general health sector of the country.
He acknowledged the financial constraints of the government but believed a new roadmap put in place to overhaul government policy and programs aimed at addressing the challenges in the area of mental health.
While not ruling out the possibility of renovating and rehabilitating the Catherine Mills Mental Rehabilitation Center, he is of the view that if the new roadmap being talked about brings out good meaning, stakeholders should be thinking about moving to a new site and building a modern structure.
“We are talking about a new roadmap for mental health in the country so it will be a good thing to reflect that when this place was established some years ago, this place was a bush. People used to come here and hunt for animals and it was an isolated community. But today, it is almost in the middle of the town. The funds needed to relocate people from around here in order to renovate this place will be enough to build a modern place with all facilities, he said.
Also speaking at the occasion and behalf of the Country Coordinator of the International Organization of Migration(IOM) , Mr. MC Diallo, the Country Focal Person of Migrants as Messengers , Mr. Siaffa Tamba while expressing the serious challenges being posed by people who have mental disabilities especially the young people, said there is also another bigger crisis facing the young people who out of desperation to seek for greener pastures out of the country have chosen the wrong path to migrate without proper planning that have led to major catastrophes such as being robbed, raped, missing or death.
“We have a crisis on hand. Many of our young people because of the economic situation in the country, and because of the less opportunities available, have decided to look elsewhere for opportunities. They are leaving this country in numbers; they are rushing to the North of Africa to get to the sea and cross over to Europe but the sad thing is they are dying. They are being robbed, they are being humiliated and all kinds of evils are happening to them”
He said however, since 2016, the IOM has been involved in bringing back some of them, a number he put conservatively at 3,000 but some still are hell bent on getting out using similar processes producing the same unfortunate results.
“And when they come back without good results and because of the mindset they have before leaving the country, when nothing positive happens, they become mentally disturbed. And to break their hearts more, for their parents and community to accept them and understand their condition, they are rejected, stigmatized and looked upon”, he said.
Mr. Tamba said the IOM has been running a project called Migrants As Messengers, an awareness raising program where information is shared about the risks and danger of irregular migration (traveling without the required travel documents and using authorized border entry points to cross into other Countries). The project targets youth between the ages 17-25 as its primary audience and parents, friends, community leaders, policy makers, influencers etc as Secondary audience.
He noted that the project has assisted a lot of young people who returned for unfulfilled journeys and some of them are being actively involved with all of the activities of the project. He said so far it has recorded huge successes as most of the dejected returnees have been rehabilitated and offered life changing training to improve their lives. He told parents to advice their children to take the right route in travelling by obtaining the right travel documents , doing detailed research and getting more useful information before travel to avoid all the unnecessary risks associated with unplanned migration
Side attractions at the program include testimonies of some individuals who were once mentally challenged but got cured through various mental health interventions at the once Catherine Mills Center and the ES Grant Center and now leading productive lives. They are Rev. Bill Jallah who runs an NGO called Cultivate for Users Hope , an institution comprising persons who were once mental patients and now working together to help those who are in similar and current situations and Mr. Benjamin Ballah, who is now a classroom teacher with a Bachelor’s degree. Their testimonies were moving and showed that mental patients still have hope of being cured and living meaningful lives.
A drama portraying a stigmatization of mental persons was staged by some in patients and out patients of the ES Grant Center and drew cheers and admiration from the audience that attended the occasion.