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The “Association Saint-Camille-de-Lellis” is an African charitable organization providing services for people with mental illness. It first took root in Ivory Coast in 1991. In 2004, its services began to expand to Benin and then, in 2015, to Togo.
According to traditional African understanding, people with mental illness are demon-possessed, they have been bewitched: thus are their delusions, or unusual or bizarre behaviors, interpreted. Members of the community in which they live keep their distance; no one dares touch them for fear of being bewitched in turn. In the city, such people wander through the streets, destitute and abandoned: they are shunned and left to fend for themselves. They are still too often chained to a tree at the outskirts of a village. They may remain there until their death.
Thanks to the unremitting work of its founder, Grégoire Ahongbonon, and that of his hand-picked team, seven centres of different types (see below) currently welcome people with mental disorders in Ivory Coast, seven in Benin, and three in Togo. People with mental disorders who arrive in one of the treatment and recovery centres are first diagnosed by a psychiatrist or a specialized nurse. Depending on the centre’s capacity and the demand for its services, it can serve from 120 to 300 people on a given day. People receive medication there, surrounded by caregivers (almost exclusively recovered former patients) who provide a supportive, loving and affirming environment. After a few months, depending on their progress and personal needs, they may be directed to a vocational training centre to learn a trade before returning to their community of origin. When they are ready, they can return to their community of origin (village, neighbourhood, family). A network of outpatient clinics then ensures access to their prescribed medication regimen and to medical follow-up relatively close by. It is estimated that by 2022, altogether more than 130,000 men and women will have benefited from one or more of these services. Most of these people are now active in their community. The Saint-Camille Association relies solely on donations for its operations: it receives no government financial assistance.