Our mental health system: One woman's horror story

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(Image via @BipolarsRule)

Daniel Johnson tells the story of a female friend who, as a result of domestic violence, developed bi-polar disorder and how she fell victim to a legal system that allows psychiatrists to lock such people up and force them to take mind-altering drugs.

ONE OF THE funniest scenes in the movie The Castle is the one in which Dennis Denuto, Daryl Kerrigan's lawyer, argues in court that the forced sale of Daryl's home is not right because of “the vibe of the thing”.

The Chief Justice asks him if he has a legal precedent for this "vibe". Dennis says no, but, well, its just the vibe.

It's comedy, and we all realise that Dennis is an idiot and that, though we know what he is talking about and even agree, his argument will not work within the confines of the justice system.  

So imagine my shock and dismay and even disgust when, attending a meeting with the head psychiatrist at a major hospital in Sydney regarding the involuntary scheduling (they call it scheduling but it is incarceration) of a very close friend, he tells me that he judges the mental state of his patients largely by “the vibe”. I'm sure there was a loud thump when my jaw hit the floor. I'm thinking

“how can it be that he is legally allowed to remove their freedom and forcibly medicate them based on this 'vibe'”?

There are several very unfunny and important points to understand here. Firstly, the fact that psychiatrists rely on their intuition for diagnosis of mental Illness, and that they enjoy all sorts of legal protections whilst doing so makes no scientific or legal sense at all. There is no test for mental illness! (The medical profession prides itself, and rightly so, on its diagnostic capabilities.) We all have benefited from these. But these capabilities have come about through diligent scientific method and research, testing and re-testing. They can, therefore, be trusted.

This is not the case with psychiatry. At best, psychiatry is a social science whose tenets are developed through observation. This is fine in itself, and has its place in therapy but it is not medicine. Ask any psychiatrist how many cures he or she has had and they are likely to laugh.

Secondly, given that this is the case, and it is the case, the fact that a person can be robbed of liberty based on the intuition of a psychiatrist is a vile injustice.

My friend was incarcerated on hearsay. That is to say, she was scheduled at the word of one of her siblings, who made outrageous statements about her behaviour to the mental health team at the hospital. My friend, that afternoon, was not interviewed. She was taken from the waiting room by four burly security guards, pinned to a bed and injected with an extremely strong anti-psychotic.

She was interviewed two days later, whilst under the influence of various medications she was forced to take. She was very upset by her scheduling and the forced drugs and being manhandled. The emotions she expressed were used as reasons to keep her in hospital. Her notes are peppered with terms like “pressured speech” and “belligerent”. “Suicidal Ideation” is also there, despite the fact that she has never even thought of suicide.

She was taken to the hospital on a Monday and had been seen by her GP the Friday before, who said she was fine. She had been at work the Thursday before that and her colleagues said they saw no signs of “mania”. What really happened was that she had had an animated conversation with some relatives at a party on the Saturday night. Her sister felt this represented mania. She has been scheduled twice before. First time was two months after giving birth, the second was six years later.

She was initially diagnosed as bi-polar, despite the circumstances of having just given birth and suffering abuse at the hands of her husband. Once you are diagnosed bi-polar you are at the mercy of the system and, as on this last occasion, can be re-scheduled at any time.

The Mental Health Act 2007 NSW states clearly that a person cannot be scheduled unless they are a danger to themselves or someone else. My friend is never a danger to anyone, including herself, quite the opposite but her notes state otherwise, also on the hearsay of her siblings, and her abusive ex-husband.

A person has a legal right to say who she wants notified or kept up to date on her medical progress while she is in hospital. Because of the behaviour of her siblings, she asked specifically that her case not be discussed with them. She asked me to be her primary carer and I went to Sydney to help her out.

Throughout the three weeks it took to get her out of there, I was consistently shocked by the behaviour of the staff and psychiatrists. They punish if you are not “compliant” by removing access to phone calls or escorted leave. The day I got there, we overstayed a leave by forty minutes and my friend dropped in to her son's school for a parent and teacher meeting. Her ex-husband told the psychiatrist that she had behaved “manically”, which she hadn't and they punished her by not allowing her to leave with me, her primary carer.

Meanwhile, I was being stalked and abused by her siblings who resented my efforts to get her out of the hospital and who were in constant communication with her psychiatrist, despite her specific legal request that they not be allowed to do so. She felt that the family were conspiring against her, which the hospital used as further evidence of mental illness, despite the fact that this was the truth.

Nothing I could say to the psychiatrist seemed to get through to him. His demeanour was very peculiar. He could not make eye contact, maintained an abstract line of reasoning (ironically, these are aspects of personality used as evidence of psychosis in my friend's notes) and was devious about discussions with family when frankness is of paramount importance in medical relationships.

The only time he came around was when I hired a very well known lawyer and had my friend request a mental health tribunal hearing. It was then that he said he would give her a “graduated release” over a period of days with daily visits back to the hospital. I must add that at this time her behaviour was no different to what it was five weeks earlier.

Essentially, the synopsis of the story is that my friend was incarcerated for five weeks because her sister said she was crazy and was believed by the psychiatrist. She was forced to undergo treatment that she did not want using drugs that severely inhibit a person's ability to manage a normal life. She was accused of a wide range of aberrant behaviours that did not exist and even had she displayed them, were not illegal in and of themselves.

If she argued against her treatment or incarceration this was termed “non-compliance” or “belligerence” and extended her stay in the hospital or caused her to have normal human privileges cut.

Even had I argued, I was too aware that it would backfire to her detriment so had to be extremely cautious. (I notice in her notes that I am mentioned many times as a bad influence … having been slandered by the siblings and despite the fact I am her legal primary carer).

She is now out of hospital and back at work but has suffered a real loss of confidence and fears being returned to hospital for similar random reasons. For her, it is as if she can be picked up and locked up randomly at any time.

And she is not the only one of course. The hospitals are full of these stories. What sort of society abides these abuses? The same one that detains refugees indefinitely against The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (signed by this country:

To wit:

Article 9. No one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

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Our mental health system: One woman's horror story

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