Human Rights Watch, an international Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) has alleged that mental health patients in Nigeria are routinely subjected to dehumanizing treatment. The New York based NGO disclosed this in a publication on its website on Monday.
“Thousands of people with mental health conditions across Nigeria are chained and locked up in various facilities where they face terrible abuse,” it said.
Further, it noted that detention, chaining, and violent treatment are pervasive in many settings. These happen in formal and informal structures such as state hospitals, rehabilitation centers, traditional healing centers; as well as both Christian and Islamic faith-based facilities.
Senior disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, Emina Ćerimović, who decried the practice; urged action on the part of government.
“People with mental health conditions should be supported and provided with effective services in their communities, not chained and abused. People with mental health conditions find themselves in chains in various places in Nigeria; subject to years of unimaginable hardship and abuse.”
“President Buhari denounced chaining as torture. But it’s not enough to raid these centers and shut them down. People rescued from these desperate conditions and other Nigerians experiencing psychological distress should have access to proper psychosocial support and mental health services,” Cerimovic recommended.
Indeed, President Muhammadu Buhari had disclosed in October 2019 that his government would not “tolerate the existence of the torture chambers and physical abuses of inmates in the name of rehabilitation.” He was speaking in the wake of the discovery of the Islamic rehabilitation centers where inmates are chained. However, Human Rights Watch insists the government is yet to acknowledge that this abuse is rife in government-run facilities too.
Stigma, wrong perceptions worsen case of mental health patients
Between August 2018 and September 2019, Human Rights Watch visited 28 facilities ostensibly providing mental health care in eight states. In addition, it visited the Federal Capital Territory, including federal psychiatric hospitals, general state hospitals, state-owned rehabilitation centers; Islamic rehabilitation centers, traditional healing centers, and Christian churches. Furthermore, it conducted interviews with 124 people, including 49 chaining victims and their families, staff in various facilities; mental health professionals, and government officials.
It revealed that deep-rooted problems in the healthcare and welfare systems leave most Nigerians unable to get adequate mental health care or support in their communities. Additionally, it noted that stigma and misunderstanding about mental health conditions; including the misconception that they are caused by evil spirits or supernatural forces; often prompt relatives to take their loved ones to religious or traditional healing places.
Likewise, Human Rights Watch found that people with actual or perceived mental health conditions; including children, are placed in facilities without their consent, usually by relatives. Further, the NGO affirmed that in some cases; police arrest people with actual or perceived mental health conditions and send them to government-run rehabilitation centers.
“Once there, many are shackled with iron chains, around one or both ankles, to heavy objects or to other detainees, in some cases for months or years. They cannot leave, are often confined in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions, and are sometimes forced to sleep, eat, and defecate within the same confined place. Many are physically and emotionally abused as well as forced to take treatments.”
‘We chain them so they don’t run away’
Meanwhile, the NGO quoted a nun in charge during a visit to a state-owned rehabilitation center in southeastern Nigeria; who revealed that they chain people to their beds “so they do not run away.”
Also, the nun reportedly defended chaining a woman who had HIV “to stop her from going around the men.” In addition, it found another woman at the same institution chained naked to her bed.
Human Rights Watch also disclosed that in a traditional healing center close to Abuja; it encountered a woman who was pinned to a tree trunk with an iron ring. She had been restrained in that manner for three weeks with her upper body naked. Further, she was unable to move and so she was forced to eat, urinate, and defecate where she sat.
Also reported were a number of other dehumanizing conditions seen in many traditional and religious rehabilitation centers visited.
Equally important, the body called on the government of President Buhari to act decisively.
“While the Nigerian Constitution prohibits torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment, the government has not outlawed chaining…”
However, it insists that the United Nations holds that chaining unequivocally amounts to torture.
“The Nigerian government should ban chaining and urgently investigate chaining in state-owned rehabilitation centers, psychiatric hospitals, and faith-based and traditional healing centers in all 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory. The government should also prioritize the development of quality, accessible, and affordable community-based mental health services.”