‘Forgotten’ hospital abused ask for apology
MANY of New Zealand’s old psychiatric institutions now stand derelict, surrounded by weeds, unnoticed by passers-by.
However, hundreds of former patients say the walls of these old buildings once hid physical violence, sexual abuse and cruel punishments.
More than two decades since the last of the old “bins” closed, a group of Wellingtonians is fighting for those patients whose stories of trauma are a forgotten chapter of New Zealand’s history.
Mental health advocacy team the Phoenix Group has launched a petition to have the Government formally acknowledge Te Āiotanga: The Report of the Confidential Forum for Former Inpatients of Psychiatric Institutions, which contains the accounts of almost 500 patients and their families.
The Forum was convened in 22 locations throughout New Zealand between 2005 and 2007, and heard testimonies from 493 people affected by their time in the “bins”.
Its report was presented to former Labour health minister Pete Hodgson, who declined to offer an apology or an acknowledgement of the suffering.
The current petition was initiated by Phoenix Group member Anne Helm, who sat on the panel of the Confidential Forum for two years, listening to the patients’ personal stories.
“[The institutions are] a period in our history that needs to be acknowledged,” says Ms Helm.
“The report said that a public apology would make [the patients] feel valued and respected, and bring them closure.
“The Government can apologise for the Poll Tax [on Chinese migrants in the early 20th century], and the Ministry of Social Development can run a process for people abused as wards of the state. But, for the people in the institutions, there’s been no response.
“Everyone knows about the Ballantynes fire, but hardly anyone talks about the fire at the Seacliff asylum, which killed 39 people. We need to tell them this should never have happened. It will make that closure concrete.”
With regard to formal acknowledgement of Te Āiotanga, Dr John Crawshaw, Director of Mental Health at the Ministry of Health says the report has been shared with the appropriate government agencies.
Dr Crawshaw says a number of historical complaints about abuse in psychiatric facilities before 1992 have been referred to the ministry by the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service.
“These complaints can include a request for compensation or an apology. There is an established process in place for addressing and, where appropriate settling, these claims.”
Ms Helm is not convinced of the effectiveness of the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service to help resolve complaints.
“The Confidential Listening and Assistance service … is mandated to listen to stories in much the same way as the Confidential Forum was, with the exception that this process has no formal reporting abilities.
“In other words, what they hear will never reach the light of day.”
The Phoenix Group’s petition, posted on international social justice website Avaaz.org has generated 54 signatures and interest from overseas.
Another Phoenix Group member, Eileen McAtee, is hopeful that, as well as gaining official recognition, the petition will raise awareness of mental illness in New Zealand.
She says the petition was partly inspired by the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
“Many people don’t know about this time in our past. When people find out about it, they will be shocked and know it’s not okay,” says Ms McAtee.
“The things described in Te Āiotanga that those people went through were torture. Also, some of the things described in the report are being brushed off as historical practices.
“People in the mental health system are still being put in seclusion. ECT is still being used without patients’ consent. These things are too neatly being put into the past.”
Ms Helm and Ms McAtee have both experienced mental illness, and Ms Helm spent time in psychiatric institutions between the ages of 19 and 28.
She underwent deep sleep therapy – in which a patient is rendered unconscious by psychiatric drugs for a period of weeks – at Cherry Farm in Dunedin, and recalls traumatic experiences at Lake Alice in the Manawatu.
Because of her past, she says her time on the Confidential Forum panel was “exceptionally difficult”.
Testimonies heard by the Confidential Forum included reports of physical abuse by staff, sexual assaults, solitary confinement, heavy doses of medication given as punishment, taunts against transgendered people and women with eating disorders, and ECT given to young children.
“I had to work on all my own Pandora’s boxes at the time,” says Ms Helm.
“I had to learn not to be distressed. I had a beautiful embossed bag with me in the room – and I’d touch it to remind myself there were still beautiful things in the world.”
The final report, Te Āiotanga, was presented to former Labour ministers Michael Cullen, Pete Hodgson and Rick Barker.
She says: “I think there was a fear of financial accountability, and of opening a can of worms.”
Further interest was sparked in Te Āiotanga was sparked last year. Kiwi filmmaker Jim Marbrook (right) made Mental Notes, a documentary about former patients’ and staff members’ experience in the “bins”.
“We thought we’d use the publicity from the film to generate interest in the petition,” says Ms McAtee. “Consciousness was already being raised. People following the Mental Notes Facebook page have expressed their support.”
Mental Notes tells the story of five New Zealanders – including Ms Helm — who were incarcerated in these institutions, including Lake Alice. The latter was the centre of a police inquiry resulting from claims of child abuse at Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital, Porirua Lunatic Asylum and Lake Alice.
“I was horrified to hear some of those stories,” says producer and director Mr Marbrook.
“We’d be terrified of the bins, even as children. The legend in the Waikato was that you turned right to Tokanui if you were mad, and left to Waikeria [prison] if you were bad.
“It’s important to record and preserve this history that’s not in our official archives. The buildings themselves are falling down. Lake Alice is getting knocked down in 10 years’ time, and there’ll be just a pasture left. And then who’s going to know what happened?”
Human Rights Commission Disability Commissioner Paul Gibson is supportive of the petition’s goals.
He says the commission wants to “slow cook” a national conversation about the old psych institutions by making people in the disability sector and beyond aware of the human rights abuses that took place.
“I am using the notion of saying sorry at public speaking events [for the commission], and comparing it with processes such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission [restorative justice following apartheid], the ‘Stolen Generations’ [process] in Australia, and Treaty [of Waitangi] reconciliation in New Zealand,” he says.
“The physical, emotional and sexual abuses against disabled people needs national acknowledgement. Everyone in our communities needs to know what happened, acknowledge it and learn from it.”
Even though she is aware the process will be slow, Ms Helm says she will continue to speak out against the mistreatment she and many others received.
“I believe I have the responsibility to the people I was in Lake Alice with. They are my people.
“I will stand for the recognition of Te Aiotanga until they put me in my grave.”
Top image: http://www.poriruahospitalmuseum.org.nz
Jim Marbrook: http://2010.spark.net.nz/
Bottom image: http://worldcinemashowcase.co.nz/