Benjamin Ballah was born on a farm in northern Liberia as one of four children. Growing up, he experienced depression that his parents and grandmother couldn’t handle. These worsened when his country was embroiled in civil war and he was forced to flee to neighboring Guinea.
During one of these episodes, he was taken to a center where he was chained for 11 months.
He is now back in Liberia, where he is a teacher and works at Cultivation For Users’ Hope (CFUH), an organization that works for people with mental health problems.
He shares his story:
“I grew up in Lofa County in rural northern Liberia. My father was a poultry farmer and hunter and my mother helped on the farm. My parents were both uneducated. I have a brother and two sisters.
“I developed depression as a child. At the time, my family saw it as a spiritual problem as a result of witchcraft. They thought I was possessed by demons. There was no scientific basis for it. It was just superstition. But people, especially uneducated people here, believe what others tell them.
“My parents and grandmother believed in witchcraft and witch doctors. In fact, my great-great-grandfather was a witch doctor.
“The first Liberian civil war began in 1989. In 1994, when I was 14 years old, Lofa was besieged by ULIMO rebels (Liberia’s United Liberation Movement for Democracy). I was afraid that I would be recruited as a child soldier and forced to take up arms, as has happened to many of my friends. So I went into exile in Guinea.
“I went without my parents; they followed later. I ended up in Macenta, Guinea, where I attended a school for refugees. I stayed with my older brother who had also fled. But without family support, I became increasingly depressed.
“One night I got very anxious and talkative. I received traditional herbal medicine from a witch doctor. It reduced my fear. That was my first serious episode of depression.
“I returned to Liberia in 1998 when I finished school and decided to become a teacher.
“The headmaster of my former high school contacted me and asked me to teach there. It is not easy to find qualified teachers for rural areas in Liberia.
“But not long afterwards the second Liberian civil war started and I was expelled again – this time to the Liberian capital Monrovia. I was alone again and things didn’t go well for me. I wanted to go back to university but had no support. I was admitted to medical school in Russia, but I didn’t have the resources.
“I got very frustrated and depressed. I went from place to place. I’ve talked too much. I would scream and scream and couldn’t sit in one place for long. I also hallucinated and saw strange things.
“My mother and grandmother took me to a spiritual“ healing center ”in Monrovia. They thought the center would “civilize” me because I acted violently. I was scared to go there, but I had no choice.
“In the middle I was chained to a heavy block of wood and brought into an auditorium with about 30 other people who were also chained to tree trunks. There were men, women and children in the room. Some of the other chained men were former child soldiers.
“I got very angry because I was treated at the center. In the 11 months that I stayed there, I never saw a psychiatrist or any other doctor.
“All day there was nothing to do but sit there. They only untangled us to take us to the latrine on occasion. Most days I only got one meal. The meal consisted of “garri” (dry cassava) and dry coconut. We only got a small amount of water. Sometimes I got extremely thirsty, but they stopped giving me. There were times when I drank my own urine.
“Life seemed meaningless.
“Sometimes those of us who were chained up would talk to each other and tell jokes. I made a couple of friends in the middle.
“My mother stayed there all the time to take care of me. She slept in a separate room and took instructions from the senior pastor in the center.
“I’ve told her many times that I want to go home, but she wouldn’t take me without the pastor’s approval.
“Sometimes she secretly gave me extra food. She would sit next to me. Some days she would talk to me and try to comfort me; other days she would just cry.
“After eleven months, my brother picked me up and took me to the ES Grant psychiatric clinic in Monrovia, the only psychiatric clinic in Liberia.
“I relapsed a few years later after my wife Victoria died. But this time I was taken to the hospital, where I was treated and diagnosed with depression for two weeks.
“I now work for an organization called Cultivation For Users’ Hope, which campaigns for people with mental health problems and tries to sensitize policy makers to them. Mental health has never been a priority for the Liberian government.
“Mental health facilities in Liberia are severely underfunded. The ES Grant Mental Health Hospital only has 80 beds for inpatients. The country is extremely poor and until recently had no mental health budget.
“I don’t blame my mother and grandmother for taking me to the ‘healing center’. They were uneducated and couldn’t see any other solution.
“I’m now married again and my first child was born in 2013. Now that I have three children, I’ve managed to be happy. When I come back from work and see them, I feel happy. “
This interview has been edited for the sake of clarity and brevity.