Human Rights Violations Past And Present

I’m sure that many people don’t have a good understanding of the human rights issues involved in the mental health treatment world. I feel that one of those people is James Dailey who writes in a UVA Daily Cavalier article, Evolving standards.

Today’s mental health crisis is similar to that of yesteryear. The idea of human rights has evolved to the extent that physically chaining, beating or unlawfully incarcerating the mentally ill is considered inhumane. Even though these physical punishments have largely been phased out, those suffering from mental illness in this country still suffer considerably. Today, a social stigma punishes the mentally ill in the same way caretakers physically abused them in the past.

Incidents such as those involving the physical chaining Mr. Dailey mentions still take place in many foreign, and usually under developed, countries. This is not a similar human rights crisis; this is the same human rights crisis. Beating or unlawful incarcerating is considered inhumane regardless of whether the persons being assaulted or falsely imprisoned have received any psychiatric label or not.

But even if treatment options become more affordable, many people may be reluctant to obtain treatment for mental illness because of the surrounding social stigma. Many parents deny their children the opportunity to see a therapist or psychiatrist because they fear their children will be deemed abnormal. According to a Family & Youth Roundtable study, 79 percent of families avoid mental health treatment for their children because of the associated social stigma. Adults and teens deny themselves treatment for the same reason: for fear of being judged by a society that considers mental illness a kind of psychological weakness rather than a “real” ailment.

When Mr. Dailey can give me any conclusive evidence that what is commonly referred to as “mental illness” is not due to some “kind of psychological weakness”, then I will pay closer attention to what he says. I don’t have the idea that anybody is doing any research to determine whether “mental illness” labels have anything to do with “psychological weakness” or not. I believe that a lot of research is being done by drug companies who want to sell drugs. When these drug companies have doctors who say “mental illness” is just like a physical disease, and not a matter of “psychological weakness”, the sale of pharmaceutical products goes up.

The fact that many individuals cannot afford treatment, when compounded by the intense stigma associated with the treatment, creates terrible consequences. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 90 percent of those who commit suicide suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. As suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-old individuals, this is unacceptable. Forcing people into a state of isolation and hopelessness to the point of suicide when treatment options exist is utterly deplorable. This situation is no different than denying a cancer patient life-saving treatment. An although the overwhelming majority of those suffering from mental illness are not inclined to violence, a few are, such as Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Jared Loughner in Arizona several weeks ago. Perhaps these shootings could have been prevented had there not been such an intense stigma linked to treatment.

Emphasis added.

Although I have seen people in mental institutions incarcerated against their will and wishes, and forcibly drugged, I have never seen anybody forced into a state of isolation and hopelessness. I have encountered many people who had a subjective sense of feeling that they had been “forced into a state of isolation and hopelessness”, but objectively the situation was far different. You get out of this hoopla a lot of people talking about some right to receive mental health treatment without respecting one iota a person’s right to refuse such treatment. The question that is not being asked here is whether such treatment as is received does any good when it comes to relieving this “state of isolation and hopelessness”. Much mental health treatment today is known for its failure to return the demented person to a state consistent with what is considered “healthy”.

The problem here is that if by “stigma” he means prejudice and discrimination, I certainly don’t think entering treatment programs seems to be removing that prejudice and discrimination. If anything, the treatment seems to exasperate the abuse. I take issue with the name calling when Mr. Dailey calls the V-Tech shooter and the Arizona shooter “mentally ill”. I certainly don’t think either of these two suspects would be able to get off on an insanity defense. You are giving people labeled “mentally ill” a very bad name by linking them to these two very calculating mass murderers. That is a highly prejudicial thing to do. People should not be diagnosed by mass media any more than they should be tried and convicted by mass media. A part of the problem with our mental health system is that, unlike in the criminal justice system, where a person is innocent until proven guilty, a person is “sick” by pronouncement of a single “expert” in some cases, and usually never gets to a place where he or she is “diagnosed sane”. This trial by expert would apply to the “sane” diagnosis as well. This is to say that there are serious due process issues that have never been effectively dealt with in the civil commitment process.

As a former resident of Charlottesville, and a person very familiar with the University of Virginia, I’m not at all surprised that Mr. Dailey should think in such a fashion. There is not much sympathy for, nor human rights consciousness, as regards people labeled by the mental health/illness system at UVA. Richard Bonnie, a UVA Law Professor, founded the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy near the University Corner. This institute is mostly about linking people labeled “mentally ill” with criminal behavior. This same Richard Bonnie served as the appointed chairman of the VA Supreme Court’s Commission on Mental Health Reform. This commission was instrumental is making the laws in Virginia more restrictive than they had been in the recent past. A few counties in northern Virginia that allowed a few more civil liberties, and legal resources, for people in the mental health/illness system had to be brought back into line with the rest of the state. This, sadly to say, and as you should be able to see, represents a reverse rather than an advance for people enduring the mental health/illness system in that state.

Regarding Mr. Dailey’s comfortable belief in progress, and his glance back to conditions at the State Lunatic Asylum in Milledgeville Georgia in the 1840s. He should look more closely at more recent events. I think whatever abuses took place at Milledgeville in 1847 have to pale in comparison to those killings of people deemed “unfit to live” in NAZI Germany that were inspired by eugenic sterilizations taking place in institutions throughout the USA. I’d like him to note that the reason for these killings and sterilizations was laid on genes back then, too, and not on any “psychological weakness”.