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American medical student writes about her time in Benin

Nneka M. Nwosisi, MD, MPH, Medical Student, East Tennessee State University, Quillen College of Medicine, Mountain Home, Tennessee, USA

Dr. Nwosisi’s full article is published on page 15 of the Global Mental Health and Psychiatry Review, 2023

In 2022, I attended the APA conference and a talk about a campaign called ‘Treatment not Chains’ caught my attention. I listened to Mr. Grégoire Ahongbonon speak about his own journey as a patient, and how his unfortunate experiences, and cruel things he witnessed led to the start of St Camille Association. One of his most pivotal memories was seeing a man deemed as mentally ill abandoned and chained to a cross in the village. It took days for him to be unchained and weeks for him to become well again.

I grew up in Nigeria, so this type of mistreatment was not a foreign concept for me. Mental health remains a foreign concept in the places I call home, my country of birth and many communities around the world.

As a future psychiatrist with a strong interest in global health, I am grateful for the one-of- a-kind experience I had in Benin. I worked beside Dr. Nicole Ahongbonon and other health care workers at the treatment centers. I was in awe as I watched them treat patients like their own family. My goal was to get a glimpse on how to address global mental health challenges but along the way, I might have found the secret. The most exceptional and inspiring thing about this organization is their ability to preserve their patient’s dignity while they are being adequately cared for. Inhumane treatments in psychiatric settings and lack of social justice in our communities are sometimes common in Africa, and not at all uncommon in America and other parts of the world.

Introducing Dr. Nicole Ahongbonon!

Introducing Dr. Nicole Ahongbonon!

We are very pleased to announce that Dr. Ahongbonon has joined the staff as a full-time psychiatrist at Association Saint Camille. She is the daughter of founder, Gregoire. He and his wife, Leontine, have six children and one chose medicine! She completed medical school and residency at the university in Burkina Faso where the nurses at ASC also receive their training. She is making history as the first local, full-time psychiatrist, at ASC. Many thanks for your continued care and support to help ASC thrive and grow in so many special ways in the delivery of mental health care.

American Psychiatric Association Award

American Psychiatric Association Award


“We have to change the way we look at people who are fragile—because this is about humanity,” said Grégoire Ahongbonon, the founder of the Association Saint-Camille-de-Lellis (ASC), a comprehensive mental health care system in West Africa approved by the World Health Organization (WHO). Ahongbonon delivered the inaugural Chester M. Pierce Human Rights Award Lecture yesterday, titled “Person-Oriented Psychiatry: Changing the Way People With Mental Illness Are Viewed and Treated in West Africa and Around the World.”

Ahongbonon, who was born in Benin, developed depression in his 20s after experiencing a bankruptcy. He recovered and decided to dedicate his life to those in distress. In 1983, he founded ASC, where he worked with poor patients with leprosy or AIDS, prisoners, and homeless children. In 1990, upon discovering the plight of African psychiatric patients, whose human rights were blatantly violated, ASC began to house them and treat them with dignity.


Changing lives, including my own

Changing lives, including my own

By James Grimm, MD

In 2015 the New York Times published a video, “Praying for a Cure”.  I have watched it many times, not believing the conditions under which these mentally ill individuals live.  Such confinement would hinder any treatment and they sadly often face a lack of options.

This was my introduction to the Association Saint Camille.  Its founder and director, Gregoire Ahongbonon, provided some initial comfort to my dismay.  His inspiration led to my first trip to Benin in January 2020. I was out of my professional comfort zone for the first time in years.  A tour of Saint Camille’s various treatment settings helped relieved any anxieties as I was greeted by clients singing and dancing. Equally uplifting was Saint Camille’s policy to provide care to anyone regardless of their ability to pay.  Such access gave hope for these individuals.

I will return to Saint Camille as it offered a practice of psychiatry that is both necessary and fulfilling.  There is no greater satisfaction than restoring someone’s dignity and allow them to achieve their potential.

Aurora Foundation Award

Aurora Foundation Award

Once again, our courageous founder, Gregoire, has been recognized by a prestigious organization.  He has been named an humanitarian by the Aurora Foundation in memory of the Armenian genocide. Below is an article written by the foundation.   Your continued support is greatly appreciated.

The Breaker of Chains

By Tigrane Yegavian

Grégoire Ahongbonon is the founder of the St Camille Association, which helps people in West Africa suffering from mental illness and seeks to end the inhumane local practice of keeping them in chains. A former mechanic turned mental healthcare activist, he has saved tens of thousands of people from suffering and even death, creating a community of like-minded individuals committed to paying it forward.

Born in 1952 in a Catholic family of a farmer and a housewife, Grégoire Ahongbonon grew up in the village of Kétouké, Benin. At 19, he moved to the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire to stay with a friend of his father’s in the small town of Toumodi, near Yamoussoukro, the country’s capital. He completed his training as a mechanic and settled in the local town of Bouaké, where he opened a thriving tire repair shop. Sadly, his good fortune didn’t last long.

The business soon went downhill, and around 1980, Grégoire Ahongbonon faced a period of great difficulty. It was so hard that the father of six children thought of committing suicide: “I had become miserable; I had lost everything in no time … I almost killed myself. I was lucky enough to meet a priest. He was a French missionary who took the time to listen to me and who supported me a lot.”

In 1982, this priest sent him on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was a great turning point in his life, and Grégoire returned a deeply transformed man. “During this pilgrimage, I understood that the Church is the business of all Christians, and that it must be built. I asked myself this question: what was my stone to lay in its foundation?”.

Together with his wife Léontine, Grégoire started leading prayer groups and went to the Bouaké hospital to visit the sick. He discovered totally destitute patients, often abandoned in their rooms. “In Africa, patients who cannot afford to pay for their care are left to die. They are totally neglected, and this situation continues today,” laments Grégoire Ahongbonon. His vocation was found – he would seek God among the poorest.

In West Africa, many people with mental illnesses have no access to proper medical care.

“I had become a parent to these patients. I washed them, I found food and medicine for them,” explains the activist. He also went to prisons, a place of great suffering, where Grégoire helped set up a dispensary so that the nurses-in-training from the Bouaké Faculty of Medicine could provide assistance to the inmates. As if by a miracle, his business picked up again, and he used the money he earned to support the sick.

In 1990, Grégoire Ahongbonon came across a naked gaunt man in the streets of Bouaké, going through a trash can in hope of finding food. He couldn’t pass him by. “I saw Jesus in this wandering man with a mental illness. In Africa, everyone is afraid of these patients; they are the forgotten of the forgotten, abandoned by all. They are considered to be possessed by the devil. I had also had this prejudice, but I stopped being afraid,” recalls the activist.

In many African countries, people with mental illnesses are often abandoned or kept in chains by their families who cannot afford proper medical care and feel overwhelmed by dealing with the disease. Grégoire Ahongbonon went out to look for these people and discovered “men, women and children who sought to be loved, like everyone else.”

A year later, he created the St Camille Association. With his wife Léontine, he provided food and fresh water to the mentally ill, but there remained a bigger problem of finding a safe shelter for them. In 1993, Grégoire Ahongbonon garnered support from the Minister of Health, who provided the Association with a room of 2,400 m², where the first center for the mentally ill was opened a year later, on July 14, 1994.

Grégoire recalls a mentally ill person chained by his own parents in a remote village. His sister tried to save him, defying the family ban: “It was a terrible sight. This man was in chains, lying on the ground, deprived of food and water. Unfortunately, we were not able to save his life, but he was at least able to die with dignity.”

Grégoire Ahongbonon creates a community of people willing to help others.

Since then, the St Camille Association founded by Grégoire Ahongbonon has opened 11 inpatient psychiatric centers, 63 outpatient clinics and 7 rehabilitation centers. Two of the latter ones recently closed because of the war. Today, the Association operates 79 institutions in Benin, Togo and in Côte d’Ivoire that have already treated around 100,000 people, some of whom have returned to their communities and resumed a normal life. Others stayed in the centers even after getting better, helping the less fortunate by becoming nurses. This is the innovative approach used by Grégoire Ahongbonon: the vast majority of caregivers and workers in these centers are themselves former mental patients. For him, helping others is the best way to thank them for the help one has received.

Like the Co-Founders of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, he has discovered the source of inspiration that is Gratitude in Action. “This message that the Armenians of Aurora are sending to us is perfectly in line with what we are going through at the moment,” he says enthusiastically. “We must support our brothers whether they are Christians or not, for God does not make any difference between us. We must free them from their chains to rescue them.”

Deserved Recognition

Deserved Recognition

I am excited to share that on October 15, 2020 a big dream of mine for Association Saint Camille (ASC) came true. In communication many months ago between myself, and the leadership of Les Amis de la Saint Camille, we decided that a pivotal role for me as an American is to increase global recognition of the work.   I set about spending hours on the internet looking for possible awards for ASC.   When I saw the mission and vision of the Guislain award: Breaking the Chains of Stigma, the choice was obvious to me. Gregoire Ahongbonon has been fighting stigma for the “forgotten of the forgotten” for over thirty years.  After a long application process, I was notified by email in July that he was one of 13 finalists out of 50 candidates from 18 countries. At a later date, before the official announcement, we were told he had won – it was so hard not to tell anyone!  I was both joyful and relieved!  The prize money will be used to help move along the construction of the Addiction Center in Dassa, Benin.

In the words of the presenters:

“Grégoire Ahongbonon embodies the spirit of the Dr. Guislain ‘Breaking the Chains of Stigma’ Award, having both literally and figuratively freed those in West Africa from the shame and burden often associated with mental illness,” said Brother Dr. René Stockman, Superior General of the Congregation of the Brothers of Charity and Chairman of the Museum Dr. Guislain.

“Not only has Grégoire and the Saint-Camille Association improved basic care and treatment for those living with mental illness in West Africa, they have also brought dignity and confidence back into these patients’ lives,” said Husseini K. Manji, M.D., Global Head, Johnson & Johnson Science for Minds.

Gregoire said it well in a heartfelt thank you letter to my husband James and me: “This award will give more credibility to our NGO and comfort to our partners. It is a story of humanity for the happiness of the mentally ill, the great beneficiaries”.

The best moment of all was when Gregoire surprised us with a call from Benin.  With mutual laughter of his limited English and our limited French, it was a moment of shared joy and understood sentiment that I will never forget.

To view the ceremony:

Jocelyn W. Bonner, MD   11-14-2020

Joka: a popular Beninese singer

Joka: a popular Beninese singer

Just in: Hear Joka discuss his recovery in his own words

By Benoît Des Roches, MD-psychiatrist

I met Joka, a well-known singer in Benin, in the Fall of 2019. He had had to be hospitalized for a serious chronic Bipolar disorder he had developed over time. He came out quite outspokenly to tell me about the hard times he and his family had gone through. He also gained much insight about his illness at Association St-Camille-de-Lellis where the mentally ill are cared for in West Africa and told me how he got increasingly compliant with his lifelong treatment. A warm, smiling and humble family man, here is Joka showing me around his new studio, at St-Camille’s Calavi Rehab Center, in the suburb of Cotonou, Benin, where he went back to composing those popular Beninese tunes he’s got the secret for.

Thanks, Joka, for all the good you are doing around you, as a credible spokesman for St-Camille’s cause: bringing back dignity for all humans, including the mentally ill!

Quebec, Canada

Gregoire at His Best

Gregoire at His Best

By Jocelyn W Bonner, MD

This man (face obscured) approached the Saint Camille Tokan residential program with his ankles in chains and legs bare in February 2019.  He is confused and fearful.  Gregoire (on the left) is doing what he does best:  talking to him as an equal and working to gain his trust.   The man stayed at Tokan for several months, being cared for by peers and receiving comprehensive mental health treatment.  He is doing well now and attends monthly outpatient visits. Gregoire exemplifies, in every interaction I witnessed with staff and patients, a driving humanity to change the plight of this man and countless others.

Saint Camille supports the training of nurses for 3 years at the School of Public Health in Burkino Faso at a cost of $1800 per year (inclusive of tuition, room and board).  They receive further training in mental health from the volunteer French and Canadian psychiatrists, who visit Benin on a regular basis and maintain availability by phone/video calls.   Please join Gregoire, the visionary founder of Association Saint Camille, in bringing dignity to the mentally ill in West Africa.