After years of waiting and agitation by civil society groups, the Mental Health Bill was unexpectedly passed by Parliament yesterday, amidst wild applause by psychiatric doctors and nurses who had thronged the House to listen to proceedings.
Years of waiting in anxiety by the doctors and the nurses suddenly turned to joy as they could not believe that their dream could come through so suddenly.
The passage of the bill was unexpected, since, after the completion of the consideration stage to deal with the numerous amendments, the few MPs in the chamber, as well as the psychiatric doctors and nurses who were waiting in the public gallery, thought that the bill would be passed next week.
One could, therefore, not blame the doctors and nurses when they discarded parliamentary norms and practice and clapped unceasingly when the Second Deputy Speaker, Professor Michael Oquaye, pronounced the bill passed.
Earlier, when everybody thought the Majority Leader, Mr Cletus Avoka, was going to move the motion for the adjournment of the House, he rather informed the Second Deputy Speaker that the House had to take the bill through the third reading.
The Deputy Minister of Health, Mr Rojo Mettle-Nunoo, thereafter moved the motion for the third reading, which was seconded by the Vice-Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee of Health, Mr Wisdom Gidisu.
The Chief Psychiatrist of the Ghana Health Service (GRS), Dr Akwasi Osei, who could not hide his joy, told the Daily Graphic afterwards that the bill had been introduced in Parliament in 2004 and it had been the expectation of the GHS that it would be passed by 2006.
"I don't know how to express my joy.
Eight years of anxiety, apprehension and patience- that is how I can describe my feeling now. If we knew that the bill would be passed today, we would have come here with buses full of people and thereafter paraded through the streets of Accra to exhibit our joy and appreciation,” he said, adding that “we have to pop champagne as a result of this good news".
Dr Osei said there would also be joy at the World Health Organisation (WHO) Headquarters in Geneva, the Yale University in the US, India, Australia and Canada that had all supported the GHS one way or another towards the passage of the bill.
He said it was his expectation that the President would assent to the bill to make it a law soon to enable the Ministry of Health to submit the necessary Legislative instruments (LIs) to Parliament to ensure the implementation of the law.
"It is my expectation that five years from now there will be no mad persons roaming the streets of the country, since they will all be effectively treated and integrated into society," Dr Osei said.
Ghana has had legislation on mental health since 1888 when the Lunatic Asylum Ordinance, Cap 79; became law and custodial care for the mentally ill was originally provided for.
The first asylum was built in 1906 to decongest the prison where arrested mentally ill people were kept. That ordinance had remained in force, with little modification, until the Mental Health Act 1972 (NRCD 30) was enacted.
NRCD 30 focused mainly on institutional care but it was an improvement on the ordinance because it also took into account the patient, the property of the patient and voluntary treatment.
NRCD 30 has never been amended, though, according to the memorandum to the bill, attempts were made to revise the law in 1996.
The new Mental Health Bill became necessary because the 1972 legislation is out of date and does not accord with best practice standards for mental health legislation, which aims at protecting, promoting and improving the lives and well being of people with mental disorder.
Again, since the previous health legislation and the Mental Health Act 1972, there has been an expansion of private mental health care and the charismatic churches, some of which specialise in healing mental disorders.
The new bill, therefore, applies to both public and private facilities, since human rights violations can occur in public and private mental health facilities. It will include traditional and spiritual mental health care.
"The bill ensures that standards, conditions and rights are relevant for the facilities in order to prevent the abuse of people with mental disorder, including physical and sexual abuse," a memo to the bill indicated.
Since the policy of the Ministry of Health has been to shift the focus of mental health treatment from institutionalised care to integration of mental 'health care at each level in the health system, the new Mental Health Bill seeks to promote access to basic mental health care in the least restrictive environment which is one of the basic mental health principles.
It also encourages early identification and prompt treatment of mental disorder in primary care at the district general hospital level and discourages admission to the three state-run psychiatric institutions which are often far from home, difficult and costly for families to visit and stigmatised by society.