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Date: 2015-10-08
Title: Brain Awareness Week in Ghana

Pictured on left: MGH Psychiatry staff member, Dr. Mohammed Milad, playing a game with Ghanaian school children to illustrate how neurons communicate

With a unique language, culture, and community that is unfamiliar to many Westerners, Ghana can often seem a world away. However, whether we are discussing the Ewe term “susu”, the Ga term “dwemo”, the Twi word “adwini”, or their English counterpart— the brain— there is a cross-cultural need for a community dialogue on mental health. For this reason, members of the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry, Mohammed Milad, Rick Wolthusen, Scott Orr, Marie-France Marin, and Michael Van Elzakker, teamed up with the German NGO On the Move e.V. and the South African NGO STAESA to provide hands-on community education and to jumpstart an open discussion on mental health in the Volta Region (Denu, Aflao, Kpando, and Debidebi) and the Greater Accra Region in Ghana.

As a part of Ghana’s first Brain Awareness Week this September, the team led presentations on a variety of subjects related to the brain. These talks covered subjects such as sleep deprivation, stress, alcohol use, and the ways in which daily life factors can affect the brain’s ability to function at full capacity. The team also organized hands-on activities for the community’s students, creating a fun environment where students learned about basic neuroscience, such as the function of a neuron, the anatomy of the brain, and the steps they can take to protect their own brains from harm.

Beyond education efforts, the goal of the project was to foster an open dialogue about culture and mental health within the Ghanaian community. While efforts are being made to improve the capacity of mental healthcare in Ghana, it is imperative for the community to first recognize the ways in which their society interacts with neuroscience and mental health. “As long as people do not know about the brain, they will not be able to attribute mental illness to this organ,” said MGH staff member Rick Wolthusen. “Even though the journey to reduce stigma by education might be long and tough, it is worth going; slowly but surely people will understand that prevention is better than treatment.” For this community, there is a long road ahead before their society’s mental health needs are fully acknowledged, accepted, and treated—but after these three weeks, they may be a few steps closer than they were before. In order to make the efforts sustainable on the ground, the Ketu South Municipal Health Directorate is now in charge of the educational material which was left behind and of the programs at the schools and in the community. Given the success and the overall positive feedback of this year’s initiative, the team is already thinking about next year’s project.