She shouts for a reckoning with entire mouth and unspoilt heart. My friend Poodle (“Ursula”) from Christchurch NZ declares her joy, in love with these times. (rule for radicals: that’s why she’s a teacher and you’re not)
so thats me in the corner-thats me over there–was a hard arse interview 2 do-my dyslexia gets in the way some-times-just bear with it and it will show its beauty
Living With the Scars of Abuse
by KIM THOMAS
Source: Press, The Christchurch, New Zealand
Posted on: Wednesday, 1 October 2008, 15:00 CDT
New Zealand’s mental health system has a dark history, with hundreds of former patients alleging abuse in state hospitals. Kim Thomas tells the story of one woman who suffered abuse and explores what former patients are doing to try and take back their lives.
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Ursula spent her 22nd birthday huddling near naked in the corner of a bare room at Christchurch’s Sunnyside Hospital.
She was incarcerated at the now defunct mental-health hospital for slicing her arms from wrist to armpit with razors.
During her year-long stay at Sunnyside, Ursula (not her real name) was abused and humiliated.
For at least two months she was housed in an isolation room where she was stripped, sometimes by male nurses, and dressed in a thick woollen smock as punishment for her rowdy behaviour.
Her underpants and bra were taken from her and she was forced to use a pot as her toilet, in a room visible to staff and other patients.
More than 20 years later the scars of Ursula’s Sunnyside experience are still as visible as the razor marks lacing her arms. She is not alone.
Scores of former Sunnyside patients have disclosed abuse during their stay at the Gothic-style institution.
Nationwide, about 300 former patients claim abuse in mental hospitals during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Many were sent to psychiatric institutions because of behavioural difficulties but then treated as if they had serious psychiatric illnesses. Some were as young as eight.
Allegations include physical and sexual abuse, long periods of solitary confinement and the use of electro-convulsive (electric shock) therapy (ECT) as punishment.
In 2004, Attorney-General Margaret Wilson announced the establishment of a confidential forum where former patients, their families and hospital staff could tell their stories.
It recently announced a new forum, called the Listening and Assistance Service, for people who allege abuse or neglect during their time in state care in the health, child welfare or residential special education sector before 1992.
Justice and compensation is also being pursued in the law courts.
Wellington lawyer Sonia Cooper represents about 200 of 300 former psychiatric patients, including Ursula, seeking compensation for abuse.
They filed their first claims for compensation in 2004 but the matter remains unresolved. Cooper says she tried to negotiate with the Government out of court but failed.
In the latest chapter of this long running legal process, the Court of Appeal recently passed a judgment saying the Government had to prove that the actions former patients say was abuse was actually treatment, Cooper says.
“We want an acknowledgement that this abuse happened and an apology. If the Crown had been willing to deal with this out of the courts we wouldn’t be pursuing legal action,” Cooper says.
The Government has already made one large settlement to former psychiatric patients; in 2001, 183 former patients of Lake Alice’s adolescent unit received an apology and a share of $10.7 million compensation for claims including receiving ECT and injections as punishment, sexual abuse, ECT on the genitals in several cases, and one of being locked in a cage with a deranged adult.
About 240 civil cases are still pending.
A Crown Law office spokeswoman says it is reading the very complicated Crown Law judgement to decide what steps to take next.
Ursula says she would be dead had she stayed longer in Sunnyside. She sought legal counsel and had herself checked out of the hospital.
Ursula has a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. She says 20 years ago the disorder was poorly understood.
As a result, treatment for her self-harm and erratic behaviour involved being put into an isolation cell as punishment. Good behaviour was rewarded with treats such as winning her underwear back.
For a sexual abuse victim such as Ursula, being stripped was the ultimate in humiliation.
“I saw it as an extension of the brutality I had already had forced on me.”
She says she cannot believe the way people such as herself were treated in an environment that was supposed to be therapeutic.
Sunnyside was demolished last year. But even after its demise it holds a significant and sinister place in Christchurch’s collective conscience.
Christchurch theatre director Tony McCaffrey has recently secured Creative New Zealand funding to develop a play based on the goings on in the former mental-health hospital, which he hopes to open the stage curtains on next year.
As part of his research McCaffrey visited the ruins of the old hospital and pored over patient log books and photographs.
He also interviewed former nurses, superintendents and patients.
“I believe it’s important to acknowledge the huge role Sunnyside played in Christchurch’s history and craft a memorial to that,” McCaffrey says.
“Since I started this project almost everyone I talk to has some connection to the place, whether they knew someone who worked there or stayed there. Everyone has a story.”
McCaffrey says Sunnyside housed people from all walks of life and the way they were treated is an insight into the community’s psyche over the past century.
Sunnyside’s history also provides a window into the dark history of Christchurch because of some of the inhumane acts that happened there.
Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements said abuse that occurred in institutions is a crying shame.
She says many staff from those times still feel ill at the things that went on.
However, they were often only doing what they were told or what was best practice at the time, Clements says. In time, people will probably look back at certain practices which occur in the mental health sector now, such as electric shock therapy, and condemn them as cruel or unnecessary.
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