American Psychiatric Association

This issue of the Psychiatric News Alert previews highlights of this year’s Annual Meeting.

May 22, 2022 | Psychiatric News

Human Rights Activist Grégoire Ahongbonon Delivers Inaugural Chester Pierce Award Lecture

“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.

Grégoire Ahongonon holds up chains that were used to restrain one man rescued by the Association Saint-Camille-de-Lellis.

Ahongbonon enlisted the help of a psychiatrist in Bouake, Ivory Coast, where he had lived since 1971, and ASC began establishing its own mental health care facilities. Since then, Ahongbonon and ASC have created a comprehensive mental health care system that offers affordable and adapted neuropsychiatric inpatient, outpatient, and rehabilitation care to individuals in Ivory Coast, Benin, and Togo. Nearly 130,000 patients have now benefited from ASC’s services.

Speaking through an interpreter—Benoit Des Roches, M.D., an APA member in Montreal—Ahongbonon described in searing terms the suffering of individuals with mental illness. “In Africa, the mentally ill are considered possessed by the devil,” he said. “They are treated literally like trash—people throw stones at them, families are ashamed. Women in the street are raped.”


His lecture also featured a haunting video showing naked men and women lying in the street; it included scenes of “prayer camps” where individuals with severe mental illness are chained to trees until a healer determines they can be freed. Ahongonon held up for the audience the chains used to restrain one man rescued by ASC.

Ten 200-bed inpatient centers have been established across the three countries, headed by registered nurses and staffed mostly by remitted patients who receive training from visiting and local psychiatrists. Nearly 50 Saint-Camille outpatient clinics provide follow-up care and medication and treat new patients from the surrounding villages.

Ahongbonon’s work has been recognized by numerous organizations. This year he was awarded the World Health Organization’s Geneva Prize for Human Rights and was named an Aurora Humanitarian by the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. In 2020 he received the Dr. Guislain Breaking the Chains of Stigma Award, a joint initiative of the Brothers of Charity and Janssen Research & Development. Inspired by her father’s work, Ahongbonon’s daughter became a psychiatrist.


Des Roches said the St. Camille model of care fulfills WHO recommendations for extending care in underserved areas: It uses community workers, regardless of education level, to diagnose and treat priority patients under the supervision of skilled personnel. The skilled personnel are trained with manuals that use the local language, avoiding scientific jargon. A limited number of affordable medications are used, and community workers have access to referral services for the most difficult patients.

In presenting the Chester M. Pierce Human Rights Award, APA President Vivian Pender, M.D., called Ahonbonon an inspiration. “As the founder of the Association Saint Camille de Lellis, Grégoire has helped transform the landscape of mental health care in West Africa. Through his dedicated leadership and guidance, over 130,000 individuals in Benin, Togo, and the Ivory Coast have benefitted from mental health services, including psychiatric care, many of whom would otherwise be turned away by society. His efforts bring dignity to a marginalized population and address the need for community mental health services worldwide.” ■

Originally established in 1990 as the APA Human Rights Award, it was renamed in 2017 to honor Chester M. Pierce, M.D., an innovative researcher; an advocate against mental health disparities, stigma, and discrimination; and a visionary in global mental health. In 2021, the award was endowed by the APA Foundation’s Chester M. Pierce Human Rights Endowment Campaign. This year’s lecture was the first under the endowment.