Life in a public mental ward – enough to drive you insane

Catherine Jones
March 15, 2012

An unhealthy system … there are drugs that don’t cause horrendous weight gain – but you won’t be getting them in a public ward.

The state psychiatric system needs urgent reform.

Imagine for a moment that you are returning from the corner shop after buying milk one evening. At the end of your street, you can just make out the outline of two, big, burly police officers, waiting.

As you approach, they grab you, manhandle you, drag you terrified and screaming to the street corner, then violently hurl you into the back of their paddy wagon and race off at breakneck speed – to where, you have no idea.

You have never been dangerous or violent; you have never broken the law or committed any crime – in fact, three short months ago, you were the victim of a serious crime yourself, a violent sexual assault that you were lucky to have survived.

You are worried sick that your mother, who was waiting for you to return from the shop, will have no idea what happened to you and will be frantic that you disappeared into thin air, particularly given your recent history.

When the paddy wagon finally stops, you have arrived at the local public psychiatric hospital.

This is what it felt like to be ”scheduled” under the NSW Mental Health Act when I was 28 and my experiences with the NSW public mental health system only went downhill from there.

Allegedly designed to protect me, to help and heal me, it has done nothing but traumatise and brutalise me, destroy my career and steal great chunks of my life. I now have a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, on top of the bipolar disorder triggered by too many anti-depressants in the wake of my sexual assault. And my experience is far from uncommon.

Terrible abuses of human rights occur daily in our public psychiatric facilities but are known only to the victims’ families and close friends, because in essence, no one else cares about people with a mental illness.

The draconian NSW Mental Health Act is every bit as harsh as something you would see in Texas, one of the most backward states in the US, my American lawyer husband tells me. It gives police and doctors carte blanche to treat people scheduled under that act as they please.

I have been in a ward where electroconvulsive therapy was used as a threat; where a dirty look at a nurse could result in a ”code” being called, a bashing by hospital security and hours in a padded cell; where psychological abuse and verbal insults from nurses and doctors were par for the course.

I nearly died in one ward, where I was forced to take a drug that I was highly allergic to, despite my protestations to the doctor that it was causing brain seizures and anaphylaxis.

As an involuntary patient, I had no say in my treatment, even when it was killing me. My life was saved only because three good nurses witnessed a seizure and demanded the doctor change the medication.

The drugs I have been forced to take have seen me balloon from a healthy 62 kilograms in 1997 to my present obese 90kg. (There are drugs that don’t cause such dramatic and horrendous weight gain; I know because my private specialist uses them. But you won’t be getting them in a public ward.)

Even the reasonable hospitals are still glorified jails by another name, where everything, including your phone and wallet, and tea and coffee-making facilities, is locked up, and you are limited to just two phone calls a day.

Being imprisoned for being ill is horrendous enough, but recently in NSW, involuntary patients even lost their right to a timely legal challenge to their detention.

The wait was extended from two weeks to three or sometimes longer to save money, as an independent consultant’s report now reveals, despite two years of denials.

Only now is that being remedied, according to today’s report.

I have done everything I can over the past 14 years to protect myself from this system – I have insight into my illness; I am totally ”medication compliant”; I pay top private health cover to have access to a private psychiatrist and private hospitals. Yet nothing protects you from this public system once you have been in it: as I discovered last year, you can even be scheduled ”on your history” alone.

The public hospital psychiatric system and the Mental Health Act in NSW both need urgent reform. An excellent starting point would be with how people are ”scheduled” under the act. People with a mental illness are statistically no more violent than the rest of the population. So why are police involved in taking them forcibly to hospital?

For everyone else in our society who is ill, we call an ambulance.

Given that one in five of us will became mentally ill at some time in our lives, it could be your loved ones one day. Would you want to see them treated like this?


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