By Awa Bah
A public hearing under the aegis of the National Assembly Select Committee on Health involving stakeholders, was held on Thursday 5 April 2018, at the Faji Kunda Health Centre, to discuss the issue of Mental Health in the Gambia.
In his opening address, Ousman Sillah the National Assembly Member for Banjul North and Chairperson of the National Assembly Select Committee on Health, Women, Children, Disaster, Humanitarian Relief and Refugees, noted that “health has so many areas and issues that need urgent attention, but mental health is one of these areas which is not given much focus and support it deserves and this is the reason why the Committee, with funding from the International Republican Institute (IRI), is organising this forum to engage the public on the issue.”
Ousman Sillah said the Committee has already started dealing with some of the other equally important areas in the health sector through the normal and ongoing oversight processes; but that as for mental health, there is need for a broad based multi stakeholder engagement involving the wider public or communities.
The Health Committee Chairperson said when the IRI engaged the Committee to discuss the areas and activities in which to collaborate, they readily identified mental health as an issue to focus on; that hence the public hearing.
He said the overall objective of the public forum is to engage stakeholders, both the State and Non-State Actors, including civil society and the communities, to discuss the issue of Mental Health with the view to inform and necessitate the much need policy reform and support.
Speaking on behalf of IRI, Mr. Lamin Saidy told the gathering that his organisation is currently supporting two committees of the National Assembly, namely the Health and Education Select Committees, in their oversight work by providing training and funding to plan and undertake some of their activities; that this public hearing on mental health organized by the Select Committee on Health, is one of the activities being funded by them, adding that they will be supporting the committees to conduct site visits to some facilities and programmes of the sectors under their purview.
Representing the Ministry of Health, Dr. Dawda Ceesay, Deputy Director of Health Services, thanked the National Assembly Select Committee on Health, for identifying mental health as the topic of discussion in the public forum. The deputy director noted that the other programmes in the health sector have been benefiting from donor funding, but that mental health is an area that gets most of its support from government. He acknowledged the advocacy role being played by other stakeholders in civil society such as mental health Leadership and Advocay Program (mhLAP). Dr. Ceesay said the Ministry has a Policy and Strategic Plan on Mental Health which needs to be shared with stakeholders and implemented.
Mr. Bakary Sonko, Manager of the Mental Health Programme at the Health Ministry in his presentation on the theme of the session ‘Mental Health: Challenges and Role of Stakeholders’, acknowledged that mental health is facing the challenge of misconception; that there is a difference between mental health which concerns everybody and mental disorder which affects the mentally disturbed. “For the purpose of this forum, we are going to treat both issues together,” said Mr. Sonko.
The Manager of the Mental Health Programme dwelled at length on the issue and what his programme is doing in addressing it and the challenges faced in terms of lack of support from stakeholders, including government. He noted the key challenges as ignorance in terms of the approach towards the issue, lack of administrative support in addressing the problem, administrative challenges, lack of financial, human and material resources, negative attitudes towards people with mental disorders, stigmatization and negative traditional beliefs among others. He called for stakeholder support in the implementation of the existing 10 year Mental Health Policy and Strategic Plan. Mr. Sonko stressed the need for the existing Law which is the Lunatic Detention Act of 1917, to be changed. He concluded with the way forward in addressing the issue of mental health.
The other stakeholders who made presentation on the theme were Police Commisioner Momodou B. Mballow, OC Prosecution and Legal Affairs Unit, and ASP Sowe, SO of Tallinding Police, who dwelled on the Law and its implementation. They highlighted challenges and the way forward.
Dr. Kalilu Jagne of the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital (EFSTH) who represented the Tanka Tanka Psychiatric Hospital, dilated on the challenges faced by the facility that has a capacity of only 100 beds which, he said, is insufficient. His emphasis was that medication does very little in the treatment of mental disorder; that psycho-social support is what is needed most. He noted that family support is most needed in addressing mental health disorders of patients and lamented that families virtually dump their patients at the facility without paying them regular visits as is the case with those admitted in other hospitals.
Ebrima Janneh, a traditional healer from Busura shared his experience in the treatment of mentally ill patients.
Anna Nancy Mendy from the Special Needs Unit of the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE), shared the work they do with children with special needs.
The Non-State actors from civil society also made presentations on the challenges and role of stakeholders in addressing the issue of mental health in the Gambia. Notable among them was Mr. Dawda Samba, Coordinator of mnLAP. Samba said people with mental health disabilities are often viewed as aggressors but that they are the actual victims of aggression from society. He said these people need to be supported and given the attention they deserve. He urged the National Assembly to support in enacting the appropriate Laws and increase the budgetary allocations to Health and Mental Health, to take care of medication, staff and training, among other needs. He said a comprehensive Mental Health Act should be enacted by the Law makers as well as oversight. Among his other recommendations are to institute an integrated approach to mental health as well as the incorporation of the returnees from irregular migration in a national mental health programme.
Mr. Salifu Manneh Director of Mobe Mental Health organization and Mr. Solomon Correa of Supportive Activist Foundation (SAF), both explained in detail their intervention areas and the programmes they provide in mental health care.
The members of the National Assembly Select Committee on Health who took the floor in asking questions, were Ndey Yassin Secka, Nominated Member, Bakary Camara, Member for Kiang Central, Musa Amul Nyassi Member for, Amadou Camara, Member for Nianija, Fatoumata Jawara, Member for Talinding and Saikou Marong, Member for Latrikunda Sabiji.
The members of the community from Latrikunda Sabiji and other areas took the floor.
In his closing remarks, Ousman Sillah, the Chairperson of the Select Committee on Health, assured the gathering that the recommendations made at the public hearing, will form part of their report and will be followed by actions in terms of giving support to Policy and Legal reforms, budgetary allocations and advocacy for mental health.
The forum was chaired by Mr. Momodou Cham of the Centre for Innovation Against Malaria (CIAM).