Speech of the Australian High Commissioner to Ghana
Mental Health Conference, Accra, 11 October 2013
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Chair, Honorable Minister of Health, Chief Psychiatrist of Ghana, mental health practitioners and distinguished guests from around the world:
Being Australian High Commissioner in Ghana is a wonderfully varied job. Every day is different from the next, and you can never tell where things might lead.
So it was earlier this year, when I had a request to meet Francis Acquah from the Mental Health Foundation Ghana. I had not heard of the Foundation, nor or Francis, but something told me I should hear what he had to say.
Francis introduced himself as a Ghanaian Australian – he was born in Ghana, studied in Ghana, the UK and Australia, where he had made his home. He had worked in the mental health profession in Australia for many years.
So far, so good. It’s always a pleasure to hear about the links between Ghana and Australia, and especially to hear about Ghanaians making a success of their lives in my country.
Just by the way, the numbers of Ghanaian born Australians are not large – less than 4000 in the last census, in 2011 – but they are doing well. Their average income is higher than the national average, and their level of education is also higher than the national average. A smart bunch of people, and we’re grateful for their contributions to Australian society.
And then Francis explained what he and his colleagues had in mind – a conference on mental health and wellbeing, the first of its kind in Ghana. They had the idea that the conference would raise awareness and improve the situation of people living with mental health problems in Ghana. They explained that people with mental health illness suffer not just from the illness itself but from the stigma attached to it, and from social isolation. They also explained that the numbers of mental health workers in Ghana was very low.
As you know, the themes for the conference are raising awareness, reducing stigma and promoting inclusion as opposed to isolation.
When I learnt that I would be addressing this conference this morning, I got in touch with a friend who works as a psychiatrist back in Australia, half a world away. She confirmed that these themes are current in mental health discussions in Australia, as they are in Ghana.
In Australia, I am told that one in five people suffer some form of mental illness at any one time, and that around half of the population will experience mental illness at some time during their lives. Humans being what they are, I imagine the statistics are much the same in Ghana. Which would mean that around a quarter of a million Ghanaians suffer some form of mental illness at any one time, and that around 12.5 million will experience mental illness at some time during their lives. The numbers are greater, of course, when you consider the families and friends of those who are ill.
Francis and his colleagues asked for some help in publicising the conference, and we were happy to oblige. We passed brochures onto contacts in government, alumni of our Australia Awards program, and the general public. We also advertised the conference on our High Commission and Facebook pages.
We are also delighted to be financially supporting this conference through the High Commission’s Direct Aid Program to the tune of around 25,000 cedis. The Direct Aid Program provides funding to projects aimed at alleviating poverty and for promoting human rights. We decided that, through raising awareness of the issues around mental illness, this conference could help do both.
In fact, we have also just supported a workshop to train Ghanaian teachers dealing with children who have dyslexia and other learning difficulties affecting access to education - another question of human rights. That workshop took place in Winneba last Wednesday, so it has been a busy week for the DAP program.
At this point I’m very pleased also to mention other Australian sponsors of the conference: Rotary District 9790 in Melbourne, the University of Newcastle, and private individuals including Francis Acquah himself. I am not sure if Rotary is represented here today, but the University of Newcastle certainly is. Representation from that university is particularly appropriate because of their experience and expertise in training mental health professionals, including through on-line learning. This may turn out to be another opportunity for collaboration between Ghana and Australia. I certainly hope so.
Ladies and gentlemen, for all these reasons, it gives me great pleasure to be here this morning. I wish you the best for the conference and for the important work that follows it. I hope that this conference is the beginning of a greater movement in support of those with mental illness in Ghana. And I look forward to more cooperation like this between Ghana and Australia.