MONROVIA, Montserrado – The Ministry of Foreign Affairs earlier this week began the distribution of the approved Mental Health Act signed into law by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to key institutions.
On May 24, members of the House of Representatives passed the bill into law meant to protect people living with mental health disorders from discrimination and give them access to quality mental health care in the 15 counties.
The Mental Health Act also protects the property of people with mental health conditions. However, the law has remained out of the access of many Liberians and is still not even on LiberLII, the database of Liberian laws and Supreme Court cases.
A Carter Center press statement said for the first time, Sirleaf has given direct oversight of mental health care through the Ministry of Health and creates a national advisory body on mental health issues.
According to the Carter Center press statement, the distribution of the handbill by Deweh E. Gray, deputy minister for legal affairs, signals the official enactment of the country’s first law to improve health care for people with mental illnesses and prevent discrimination against them.
“Access to mental health services is a basic human right, and the enactment of this mental health Act was needed to clearly improve the health and lives of all Liberians,” the press statement quotes Eve Byrd, the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program director as saying.
“We are grateful for the Ministry of Health’s perseverance since 2010 in getting this legislation passed, and are honored to work as partners to strengthen Liberia’s capacity to address the mental health and the overall health needs of its citizens.”
Following the signing of the bill into law, several Liberians working in the health sector expressed their appreciation.
Samson K. Arzoaquoi, assistant minister for preventive service at the Ministry of Health, said he was glad that Sirleaf took the bold step in signing the bill into law, describing it as an example of the Liberian leader’s support for health care in Liberia.
He described mental health services in Liberia as an underserved sector, given that it receives relatively little support from the government and international partners.
Arzoaquoi said the new law would ensure that Liberia provides the necessary attention to persons with mental illnesses.
He noted that individuals living with mental illness have long been marginalized. Unlike patients suffering from diseases such as diabetes or kidney failure, he said patients with mental illnesses are sometimes even abandoned by family members.
“The law is reminding us as a nation and people, of our obligation to persons with mental illness – that they are as equal as others in society and must get the kind of care provided to others as well,” he said.
Janice Cooper, country representative of the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program in Liberia, one of the organizations that has been at the forefront of the fight to increase coverage of treatment for mental illnesses welcomed the passage of the act and said she was overwhelmed by the new development, especially after the delay in turning the bill into law.
“The issue of mental health in Liberia is very critical, and the passage of the law will now address some of the inhumane treatment being meted out to persons living with mental illness in society,” she said.
“It is heartwarming to know that stakeholders of mental health in Liberia now have some of the tools in place meant to support a vibrant mental health system.”
Previously, Liberia’s 4.3 million people had one psychiatrist and a handful of mental health nurses to meet the needs of at least 300,000 Liberians suffering from mental illnesses.
Currently, Liberia has four psychiatrists and more than 230 mental health clinicians working in communities throughout the country.
Featured photo by Zeze Ballah