Breaking the chains of mental illness in West Africa

(left to right): Claudia Sighomnou and other HPIC staff got to meet with Jean-Paul Cyr and Grégoire Ahongbonon, who work to restore the dignity of those suffering from mental illness in West Africa.

Naked, chained to a tree, alone and abandoned. Never leaving your spot for days, weeks, even years. Outside in the sun, in the rain, day and night, day in and day out. Occasionally whipped and routinely starved. Living in your own filth, living an absolute nightmare.

This is the terrible reality for many people who are considered to have mental illness in West Africa. In Benin, for example, there is only one mental health hospital. And you have to pay to be admitted.

“These people are the forgotten of the forgotten. They are the most vulnerable people of a vulnerable population,” says Grégoire Ahongbonon, who is visiting Canada this month and stopped by the office of Health Partners International of Canada Oct. 27.

Must-watch amazing video produced by Dr. Benoit Des Roches, a psychiatrist from Quebec who volunteers with Grégoire.

Grégoire has made it his mission for the past 27 years to restore the dignity of these suffering people. He is the founder and director of l’Association Saint-Camille-de-Lellis, an organization that runs 16 centres for people living with mental illness in Benin, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Togo.

Grégoire’s organization has treated more than 60,000 people. He has picked them off the street naked, broken the chains that are tying them to trees at “prayer camps” and rescued them from back rooms where their desperate families have been keeping them.

The horror they live is hard to describe. In this part of the world, people with mental illness are thought to be possessed by demons, involved in witchcraft, cursed.

There are thousands living at so-called “prayer camps” where they are tied to a tree until a prophet deems them healed. There is no treatment there, Grégoire explained, only prayers for healing. They are routinely starved in the hope that the demon that lives in their body will die.

Grégoire rescues them. First they clean them thoroughly, then diagnose, then treat. “Sometimes the impact of the treatment can be seen within days,” he told HPIC staff.

“The best stories are the people who have recovered and now work at our centres, helping people who are sick, like they once were, on the path of healing. There is so much hope in this work,” he says.

HPIC regularly provides psychotropic medication to Les Amis de la St-Camille, a Canadian organization that fundraises and helps provide needed resources to Grégoire’s organization.

“As long as there is one man in chains, it is humanity that is in chains,” Grégoire said in an interview with The New York Times.

“Thank you Eli Lilly and Pharmascience for the olanzapine (a drug used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disease),” he told HPIC. “We reserve it for the patients in the worst state and it works so well for acute crises.”

Grégoire is spending time in Canada to meet supporters and donors. It is challenging to get support for people with mental illness. His hope is kept alive by many individual successes, and propels him to share his powerful stories so more people can live with dignity and freedom.

Watch this New York Times video interview of Grégoire and report on his work

Grégoire thanks HPIC donors for medicine