While I was detained in a psychiatric unit only a week after having been violently sexually assaulted (see “I Am Justina Pelletier” for more information on what led to my hospitalization and how the involvement of a patient advocate led to my quick release), I quickly noticed a disturbing trend amongst my fellow patients. In the picturesque community I grew up in, where everyone insists that abuse only happens “in the projects,” the population of this psychiatric unit appeared to be divided into two well-defined categories. One included people who truly met the legal criteria for involuntary commitment- they were actively suicidal or, in a couple of cases, violent towards others. The second included victims of abuse who, when they attempted to tell their stories of horrific abuse by influential people to police officers or psychiatrists, were simply labeled as delusional and institutionalized. Two of these individuals were reported to the authorities for their supposed “mental illness” by their abusers. Only one person in this category who was in therapy prior to his admission to this particular hospital was considered by that professional to be experiencing any form of psychosis. Many had received prior diagnoses, such as PTSD, OCD, clinical depression, dissociative disorders, and autism spectrum disorders, but labeling each individual with a reported abuse history with a form of psychosis and considering the traumas he endured to be delusions seemed to be unique to this facility. Every individual who was held for this reason was forced or coerced to take powerful psychotropic drugs- often in such high doses that these previously high-functioning people were left in a state of oblivion. None of these individuals dared to try and speak to staff about their experiences and how they were affected by them, but those who were still cognizant enough to even converse (while on high levels of powerful, psychotropic drugs) often came to me to talk about their experiences. In the dead of night and out of the watchful eyes of the staff, other patients and I would get together to pour our hearts out to each other about the injustice of it all and assure each other that we were believed (albeit, not by most staff members). Some of these patients even showed staff members scars or bruises that they sustained from the abuse they experienced, which failed to convince staff members. Several of these individuals, none of whom were hospitalized due to any sort of suicide threat or attempt, acknowledged that they planned on ending their lives as soon as they were discharged.
During my, thankfully, short stay in this hospital, I figured that the actions of the psychiatrists on this unit had to be drastically different than anywhere else, making my and my fellow patients’ experiences, essentially, a statistical anomaly. However, after relocating and starting to speak to other survivors, I learned that this kind of atrocity was not unique to my community of origin- many, many other survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and/or stalking had similar stories to tell. Is this caused by the antiquated notion amongst a subset of mental health professionals that most people who report abuse are, truly, just mentally ill? Is it a deliberate way to cover for powerful, influential abusers, as many patients claim? In my opinion, it is, most likely, a result of practitioners lacking appropriate training in both trauma sensitivity and empathy, as well as lacking understanding of the dynamics of abuse that can lead to police disbelieving victims and abusers reporting them for some version of “acting crazy.” What’s abundantly clear is that the laws that allow for forced or coerced treatment are not being appropriately implemented, and are being used, intentionally or otherwise, to isolate, silence, and further traumatize victims, as well as leaving them in an extremely compromised position when seeking help from the authorities.
While many innocent victims are left in this horrific situation, the U.S. House of Representatives is debating a bill that would directly fund the creation of outpatient commitment programs (meaning that someone who finally gets released from the hospital after such a predicament could be forced to continue taking psychiatric medications or prescribing to a certain treatment plan while in his own home), limit HIPAA privacy protections for patients labeled as mentally ill (allowing, in cases such as these, abusers to have full access to their victims’ medical records), and gutting the federally-mandated protection and advocacy program that gives such individuals, whose voices are rarely heard in conversations about their own health or the freedoms taken away from them, a voice and an opportunity to get help if their rights are being violated. It also aims to lower the standard for psychiatric commitments to a “need for treatment” standard, effectively legalizing actions such as those undertaken by this facility and increasing the already-unchecked power of psychiatrists to an ability to institutionalize anyone for any reason, at their discretion. For those who truly are experiencing a mental health crisis, it deters people from seeking help due to the increased risk of forced treatment and revokes much of the work of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the only federal program that currently approaches struggling individuals with a model of hope, choice, and compassion that allows for true recovery, rather than forced, medicated oblivion and iatrogenic trauma from forced “treatment.”
This particular bill, known as H.R. 3717, or the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2013” is a direct result of the scapegoating of the mentally ill in the debate on gun violence. Despite the fact that there is no empirical evidence linking mental illness to violence in any statistically significant manner, the societal perception that only someone with a mental illness could commit a senseless act of violence is easier for this bill’s sponsor, Tim Murphy (R-PA), and his supporters, to legislate a “solution” to than having to face up to the NRA and the political stronghold it maintains and saying that maybe, it shouldn’t be easier for a violent felon to buy an assault rifle than to vote. Furthermore, for those who choose to ignore actual facts and studies on this matter and assume that someone with a “serious” mental health diagnosis is more likely to be violent, why would we not do everything in our power to encourage such an individual to seek help? According to prominent mental health researcher Jean Campbell, Ph.D, “Force and coercion drive people away from treatment. In 1989, 47% of Californians with mental illnesses who participated in a consumer research project reported that they avoided treatment for fear of involuntary treatment; that increased to 55% for those who had been committed in the past.” Let’s be practical- even if our society wants to effectively ignore the enormous human rights issues at stake here, there is absolutely no way to round up and forcibly “treat” everyone who might possibly meet whatever the latest DSM criteria is for “serious” mental illness. Why would we not want to create an environment that is conducive to such individuals actually wanting to seek the help that they deserve?
My friends, we must take action to protect innocent victims and individuals with mental health struggles, who are eleven times more likely to be victims of violence than other citizens (even with the protection and advocacy services that this bill seeks to virtually eliminate), from H.R. 3717. Please read the action alert sent out by the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery and call your representatives immediately!
Important Note: If you are currently experiencing or being threatened with any sort of forced or coerced psychiatric interventions, please feel free to contact MindFreedom International for help at (877) 623-7743 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Through the MindFreedom Shield program, a human rights alert can be sent out, prompting MFI members to call clinicians, hospitals, or politicians on your behalf, and alerts are often very successful at stopping such interventions. You can join MFI and sign up for this program today as a preventative measure to try and stop any attempts at force or coercion in the future.
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