The House of Representatives last week endorsed a bill seeking to give equal protection to persons with mental disorders. This, according to the House, is meant to discourage discrimination, stigmatization and marginalization against persons with mental disorders in Liberia.
Additionally, the law, if and when it gets through the Senate, will allow mentally challenged persons to have equal access to healthcare as other Liberians.
The passage of the bill to protect people with mental disorders comes from a legislative body that has spent six years in power. During these years, a lot of mentally ill people flooded our cities and towns, something these officials said they would address while taking the oath of office. Now that they have come out with this belated act, one wonders when our lawmakers realized that such a grave situation existed in our society.
Passing a law now is not enough to address this problem. What we need are tangible actions to make the law impactful. For instance, where are the facilities to accommodate the many categories of our mentally challenged persons? Having successfully lived in peace for more than 14 years, there is still no facility to host people with mental health problems who are seen daily walking the streets, under the rain and sun, day and night.
Another issue of concern is the trafficking and flow of illicit drugs into the country. These drugs are abused by many people, mainly young people. In spite of the harm drugs are causing the country, the Drug Law submitted to the Legislature years back still lingers there without deliberation. Already there are many good laws on the books that government fails to implement, yet we have this important instrument that has not been enacted to curb one of the root causes of insanity. How impactful will the “Law to Protect People with Mental Disorders” be without the Drug Law?
Another issue that may serve as a predicament to the successful implementation of this law is the shortage of psychiatrists, social workers and mental health clinicians in Liberia. Information the Daily Observer gathered from the World Health Organization (WHO)-Liberia website indicates that on May 9, 2017, the Ministry of Health disclosed a shortage of Mental Health (MOH) clinicians and social workers. According to MOH records from the WHO-Liberia website, Liberia has about 500 mental health clinicians, and only two psychiatrists. Health statistics show that 13% of people in Liberia need mental health intervention. This percentage comprises the traumatized group, drug abusers and those who are already suffering very serious mental health issues as a result of different life factors, including drug abuse.
It may be recalled that about five years back some health experts from Massachusetts in the United States came to Liberia and began training Liberians on mental health at the A.M. Dogliotti College of Medicine at the University of Liberia. We cannot state what transpired between the Ministry of Health under the supervision of former Minister Walter Gwenigale and the group, but after less than three days of stay in Liberia, the Ministry of Health ordered the departure of these people from the country. Since then, there is no information on training mental health clinicians in the country, except that in May 2017 the MOH said it was embarking on training frontline health workers with support from partners, including the Carter Center, International Rescue Committee (IRC), Partners in Health, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and WHO. How impactful is it to pass a law to protect people with mental disorders in the dying minutes of an administration amid these enormous challenges?
Since the issue of addressing mental health challenges has finally claimed the attention of the Legislature, we advise that both the Executive and Legislature should work together to ensure that budgetary allotment is made to facilitate improvement in the facilities that accommodate mentally ill persons in the country. Furthermore, let the government through the Ministry of Health begin to prioritize training of mental health clinicians and psychiatrists who will be dedicated and committed to addressing these challenges.
Lastly, we encourage the National Legislature to act on the Drug Law submitted by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to curtail the trafficking of illicit drugs and growing of marijuana in the country.
Without these steps, it is certain that the passage of a law to protect people with mental disability is mere hypocrisy.