Mental illness is still somewhat of a taboo in Africa, as in most parts of the world. Treating the various forms of disease is an unglamorous job and those who practice and pioneer in the field of brain healing are the unsung heroes of the medical profession.
Dr Yao Mfodwo is one such person. He has always pursued an unconventional path and, during the course of his career, he has chalked up many firsts.
“Issues of mental health, sexuality and sex are not addressed openly,” he says. “Sexuality and sex, for example, have now become more about morality, creating all kinds of problems – because from a medical perspective, there are lots of issues around sexuality which are not being dealt with or addressed properly.”
Clearly singled out for greatness, Mfodwo was the first psychologist for the Ghanaian national football squad – the Black Stars – and part of the team that travelled to the World Cup in Germany in 2006, becoming the only African side to make it past the group stages of that particular tournament.
And Mfodwo was the first black psychiatry registrar trainee of the University of Stellenbosch, Cape Town; as well as the first person in his University of Ghana medical school class to specialise.
Last month, he became the first person to open a private sex clinic in Ghana.
Set on two acres of land in a serene part of Abokobi, in the Ga East District, The Brain Clinic specializes in mental and emotional health, sleep studies, sexuality, and sexual health. Its mission is to bring dignity and respect to mental health care through the provision of high-quality treatment services.
He facilities are second to none. There is a large recreational hall, complete with billiards table, a punch bag and other games to make patients feel at home. The room as spacious and airey, high quality, nutritional meals are prepared in a modern kitchen, and there is a garden for patients to nurture their own crops and vegetables.
“This is the best facility we have come across,” explains Paul Semeh, founder of Street Children Empowerment Foundation, an organization that rescues and rehabilitates vulnerable children from the streets. “We can be here for weeks and receive constant therapy, which is very necessary for some of the kids who have gone through lots of trauma.”
For many, it is a long-awaited departure from the decades of neglect that such a vital aspect of society has received. The Brain Clinic is a far cry from Pantang hospital or the ‘asylum’ of Accra Psychiatric hospital which was condemned by the NGO Human Rights Watch. “Overcrowding in Accra Psychiatric Hospital and Pantang Psychiatric Hospital, together with significant staff shortages (there are only 12 practicing psychiatrists and 600 psychiatric nurses nationwide), created terrible living conditions for persons with mental disabilities. Urine, flies, and cockroaches competed for space in the toilets, and nurses, lacking cleaning equipment, instructed patients to clean the wards and toilets, including removing other patients’ faeces, without gloves”.
No so in The Brain Clinic.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 650,000 people living in Ghana suffer from a severe mental disorder and over 2.1 million suffer from a moderate to mild mental disorder. So the odds are pretty high that you or someone you know or love could have a mental health disorder.
Yet, alarmingly, according to WHO the treatment gap is 98% – only 2% of those with a mental disorder will receive proper care and treatment.
According to the Human Rights Watch Report: “Mental disability is widely considered—even by persons with mental disabilities themselves—as being caused by evil spirits or demons. Persons with mental disabilities endure stigma and discrimination in the health sector, at home, and in the community. Some religious leaders describe persons with mental disabilities as demonic and controlled by spirits. Such stigma in turn causes family members to abandon persons with mental disabilities in psychiatric hospitals and prayer camps, neither visiting them nor picking them up after discharge. Stigma also deters persons with mental disabilities from seeking professional services in psychiatric hospitals”.
It is when I ask him why he is focused on the unfashionable side of healthcare, Mfodwo makes his plea for issues of mental illness and sexuality to be addressed more openly in African society.
If there is anyone equipped to tackle these issues the vast majority of Ghanaians would pretend didn’t exist, it is Mfodwo. In addition to being an experienced psychiatrist, he is also a classic leader. As Akyeamehene (Chief Linguist) of Akropong, Akwapem, Mfodwo is deemed to be a custodian and advocate of our traditional Ghanaian values and culture.
Who better to urge us to rethink those values – at least in the areas of mental health, sexuality and sex, especially if he has “abrokyire” medical training and experience.
This article was first published in Graphic Business on December 2, 2015.