Descent into Depression
In 1971 Gregory Ahongbonon left his home in Benin to settle in the Ivory Coast, a more prosperous country. He began as a tire repairman, and his business quickly became successful. He eventually purchased four taxis, married and fathered six children. Unfortunately his business fell on hard times, and eventually he lost everything he had built. Unable to support his family, Gregory fell into a deep depression, wandering the streets aimlessly. He felt abandoned by the rest of society, and like many who struggle with depression, he thought of suicide. Because of the stigma of mental illness and the lack of psychiatric care, Gregory felt ashamed and alone.
A turning point came when he met a priest who treated him with care and respect, rather than disdain. With this support and the ability to interact with others in a caring community, he came out of his depression with a new mission. He saw people on the street, many engaged in bizarre behavior, who were shunned by society and realized that he could easily have become one of them. He and his wife began to provide food to people on the streets and came to know them as human beings. His reputation spread, and state hospital in Bouake agreed to let him use a piece of their property to set up a shelter for the mentally ill. From this small first step, the St. Camille Association was launched.
In a World Health Organization article, Gregory describes his mission:
"My mission is to give dignity back to people with mental disorders, through care, support, and help to reintegrate them back into society. The St Camille Association provides shelter, medical treatment and follow up to people with mental disorders, and helps their social reintegration and rehabilitation through work. Several farms and centres have been created where people with mental disorders can cultivate manioc and other local products, as well as breed chicken, pigs and rabbits. We also try to facilitate the reintegration of people with mental disorders into their village of origin, if they wish to go back."
As St. Camille established treatment centers, Gregory and his team were able to negotiate with families of the mentally ill to remove them from prayer centers where they were chained and offer them medical care, appropriate psychiatric treatment, food and shelter, and support from a caring community. Many recovered patients remain involved as caregivers for the new patients.
Read more about St. Camille’s successes.