Revealing videos, shocking photos and text masterfully woven through.
Mental illness is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and the majority of those affected live in low-income countries, where there are often few resources for treating them. Combine that with mental asylums with abysmal conditions, weak law protecting those with mental illnesses, and rampant stigma – and it’s no wonder the World Health Organization has called global mental illness a “hidden human rights crisis.”
We set out to investigate the challenges of treating mental illness, and report on efforts to address those challenges in countries where doctors and medication are not available for most people with conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and clinical depression. Partnering with mental health experts, a team of more than a dozen reporters traveled to three continents to document the problems and some solutions to this hidden crisis.
In West Africa, families of people suffering from mental illness are so desperate, they sometimes turn to the only resource available – evangelical prayer camps. In Togo, hidden behind the prayer hall, we found a forest grove with 153 men and women chained to trees, many with no clothes on, often sitting in their own waste. Trees were carved with the names of past “patients,” who receive no treatment except prayer from the pastor.
We met a man named Grégoire Ahongbonon, who is determined to shut these camps down. He formed a group called Saint-Camille-de-Lellis and built mental health treatment centers in neighboring Benin. There he provides access to psychiatrists from abroad, medication, job training and other forms of support to people with mental illnesses. He has been so successful that prayer camps have begun disappearing in Benin, and he is expanding his operations throughout the region.
Villages and towns around the world are adopting these sorts of grassroots approaches to treating mental illness, working with whatever resources can be tapped, and using community support to help people. In India, Dr. Vikram Patel has set up a system of community-based outreach workers who have addressed an epidemic of suicides amongst farmers, and brought treatment to people who have been suffering from depression in silence. In Pune, Dr. Bhargavi Davar has empowered women from the slums to reach out to people with mental illnesses and offer links to treatment.
The Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan has its own unique challenges – 50,000 Syrian children, many of whom were traumatized during the ongoing civil war. A Syrian refugee named Dr. Mohammad Abo-Hilal knows firsthand the challenge of PTSD, and he has decided to put his psychiatric training to good use by creating an underground network of counseling and support to help the boys and girls cope with their trauma.
The topic of global mental illness gets little attention, largely because it is challenging to access people with these conditions around the world, and the issue can seem overwhelmingly bleak. We took a solutions-oriented approach, highlighting the problems by reporting on and scrutinizing some successes. A team of ten journalism students, partnered with medical experts and journalism faculty members of the International Reporting Program, created a website that is a deep-dive into this complex topic, featuring a mix of videos, photos, text and a timeline.