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Gabon's mentally ill 'treated like animals'

01 June 2016, 21:13

Mlen - The buildings are decrepit, the lawns unkempt, the patients left to shuffle alone and unwatched among weeds - welcome to Gabon's sole psychiatric hospital.

Built in 1982 on the outskirts of the capital Libreville, the facility was supposed to serve as a model for a continent where modern psychiatric treatment is in its infancy.

Now it seems more like a horror museum than a hospital.

"National Centre for Mental Health in Melen " reads a sign at the yawning gates of the facility.

Nobody watches over the premises or the several dozen patients - 24 of them veteran "residents" - who wander at will between their wards and the shops and school of a largely abandoned district.

Patients at the dilapidated centre have been left by families who could no longer cope or were picked up on the streets in a country that has just four qualified psychiatrists for a population of some 1.8 million.

They help in the public sector but earn their living largely in private practice, like colleagues elsewhere in Africa.

Trauma symptoms

The centre still boasts a handful of administrative staff and three cooks are employed to cater for patients - but they pass food from the kitchen between solid iron bars.

"Since they no longer get their medication, we're frightened of being attacked," said a cook.

Rubbish piles up in filthy corridors and medical records lie where they were dropped along with other paperwork in buildings left to decay.

"We're treated like animals," said an unshaven man in rags before shuffling back into a bedroom.

Mental illness attracts stigma widely in Africa, according to a 2013 report by Mary Amuyunzu-Nyamongo, executive director of the African Institute for Health and Development based in Kenya.

"A study conducted in Uganda revealed that the term 'depression' is not culturally acceptable amongst the population, while another study conducted in Nigeria found that people responded with fear, avoidance and anger to those who were observed to have a mental illness," the report said.

In much of Africa, particularly conflict zones where trauma symptoms are severe, the authorities lock up the mentally disturbed, sometimes keeping them in chains for years, ostensibly for their own safety.

Beyond a door left ajar, a half-naked old woman lay prone on an iron bed staring wide-eyed at the wall. Her scalp was plastered with sores and the floor covered with urine and excrement in an appalling stench. Asked how she felt, she moaned.

Difficulties are nothing new at the centre, whose staff have been on strike for more than two years to press for better working conditions.

According to the UN World Health Organisation, less than 1% of Gabon's national health budget is allocated to mental care. Yet mental disorders account for 5% of illness in sub-Saharan Africa, WHO figures show.


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