In light of the recent events and media discussions pertaining to the issue of sexual violence, we feel that it is of the utmost importance to speak out about this issue in the context of psychiatry and the treatment of those perceived as mentally ill. As victims of psychiatric coercion, we wanted to share some of the sexual violations and abuses we experienced in the name of “medical treatment,” such as forced catheterization, being watched while showering, and legal sexual assault.
I have been forcibly hospitalized three times. The first time was while serving in the army in 2009, and the second and third times were in 2014 about a month apart. All of these hospitalizations were traumatizing for a variety of reasons, but the third time was by far the worst.
In 2014, I was in community college and was experiencing a great deal of stress due to pushing myself too hard. As a 26-year-old college student, I felt like a failure for having taken so long to begin college. I also felt ashamed of having a mental health diagnosis and being discharged from the army for that reason. I never felt like I quite fit in with my classmates or with students taking part in the extracurricular activities I participated in, such as my theater group. I was scared that I would never fit in or be normal.
One day, as I was driving to rehearsal for my theater group, I began to panic. I felt intense anxiety due to not being able to learn my lines as a result of the psychiatric medications I was taking. When I arrived at the theater, I became catatonic. The director called the ambulance, and I was put in restraints and taken to the emergency room. Although I was only in the emergency room for a few hours, the experience felt traumatizing and further isolated me from my peers.
Wanting to put that experience behind me, I continued with school and theater. However, the pressure kept building up. I started to feel like I couldn’t handle it, and I didn’t see a solution. I did not wish to drop out of school, but I also could not see myself making it to the end of the semester.
One day, just a few hours before rehearsal, I isolated myself in my room, hiding under my covers, feeling like everything in the outside world was just too much. A friend came to check on me, and I was unresponsive. My friend then called my roommate, who called the police.
Before I could fully grasp what was going on, the paramedics arrived at my apartment. Because I was catatonic and unable to respond, they put me on a stretcher in four-point restraints and took me to the emergency room. The whole ride, I felt terrified, not knowing what would happen next. Eventually, I regained my ability to speak and begged the paramedics to take me out of the restraints. They didn’t listen. To them, I was just a mental patient, not a person with a voice.
When we arrived at the emergency room, I was taken to a bed, still in restraints. A nurse approached me, telling me she needed to take a urine sample and would need to catheterize me because I was restrained. I pleaded with her to take me out of restraints so I could go to the bathroom on my own.
“I’m not going to hurt anyone,” I said. “When I was in the hospital the last time, they let me go to the bathroom on my own. I’ve never been violent.”
She shook her head, dismissively. “I can’t take you out of restraints,” she said. She then prepared the catheter.
It was in that moment that I realized how little people actually cared about me or respected my autonomy. No one in the hospital cared about what I wanted or what I was comfortable with happening to my own body. Even though no one disputes that catheterization is a painful procedure, the nurse did not seem to care how it would affect me.
The nurse then pulled my pants and underwear down to my ankles and forced a tube into the tip of my penis. I felt a type of pain I had never felt before. I asked her to stop, telling her how painful it was. She would not stop. I felt incredibly helpless and humiliated. The whole experience was infantilizing — I was seen as so crazy, abnormal, and ill that I could not even be trusted to use the bathroom on my own.
After the nurse had collected the urine sample, she left the catheter in me for another half hour. I continued to experience pain and a sensation of pressure.
Eventually, a paramedic approached me, and for the first time that day, I was treated like a person. She tried to comfort me and assured me that I was not the only person to whom this had happened. She made jokes and even looked up famous people with mental health diagnoses. I asked her to take the catheter out, and she obtained approval to do so. Even though it felt humiliating and painful for her to do this procedure, I was relieved to have it out.
I was soon taken out of restraints, only to be transferred to a psychiatric ward for seven days. I did return to school, but the entire experience haunted me and continues to haunt me.
For the next two years, I felt that I could not tell anyone about my forced catheterization. I felt like no one else would treat it as a big deal. After all, it was a medical procedure done for my own good. I was worried that it wasn’t a real abuse that I had the right to feel angry or upset about.
I was also beginning a career in mental health advocacy. I was worried that speaking out about my experience would be seen as criticism of mental health treatment and discouragement from seeking help, and I felt that my credibility as an advocate would be ruined if I spoke about it as abuse. I felt pressure to reframe my forced catheterization, as well as my forced hospitalizations and restraints, as positive experiences that occurred for my own good. For these reasons I remained silent.
In 2016, I became involved with the psychiatric survivors community. I attended the Alternatives Conference, and although I was still skeptical of critical psychiatry ideas, I began to educate myself and engage with that community. Eventually, I told my story of forced catheterization, and for the first time, my pain was validated by fellow psychiatric survivors. One person responded that it was a form of sexual assault. I suddenly realized that it was okay to feel violated by what had happened; I wasn’t making a big deal out of nothing.
I started sharing my forced catheterization on social media and at local presentations. Although I was met with criticism, I felt empowered enough to not let that silence me.
Forced catheterization — and all forced treatment — needs to be stopped. This is a prime example of how the healthcare system rushes to take someone’s rights away based on the perception that a person is mentally ill. This is how the healthcare system treats people who are isolated, scared, stressed, anxious, and vulnerable. This is how the healthcare system treats veterans who are dealing with the trauma of the military, college students who are under pressure to be successful academically, and people dealing with all sorts of life hardships.
My experience taught me how different things would be if I had been treated in a humane, compassionate way. If I had been able to talk to a friend or a therapist, or even just given the permission to isolate myself in my room and be unresponsive for a short period of time, instead of being put in restraints and having my bodily autonomy violated, I would have felt free to express myself and do what I need to do to get through my crisis. Instead, I was further traumatized, and I still live with the fear that I will be hospitalized, restrained, and violated again.
As the founder of the Everyday Psych Victims Project, I’ve been a psych victim myself multiple times. Typically, even just recounting the story or the background of why it happened can make people think I am “crazy” or having a “relapse” — which is not true. It’s full of shame. One of the most shocking abuses is the “legal” sexual assault I have experienced — twice with catheters — which felt like rape. No one seems to believe it’s possible to forcibly catheterize someone during an evaluation, but I’ve written about it online for 1 ½ years. I also reported it, but no health departments have ever substantiated any of my claims.
The first time it happened to me, I was restrained in an emergency room in Kirkland, Washington. I had been feeling physically ill for the past two weeks, with symptoms including a burning and pulsing sensation in my blood, as well as swollen feet and hypersensitivity to light, air pressure, and temperature, and breathing issues. I began to have some fears that I might have carbon monoxide poisoning. Someone eventually called an ambulance, and when the paramedics arrived, I made the mistake of admitting that I had a psychiatric diagnosis. This led to me being put in restraints immediately.
At the emergency room, I had forgotten to pee into the cup for the urine test in the bathroom or into the bedpan that had been repeatedly shoved beneath me. “Pee or we will use a catheter! Pee or we will use a catheter!” yelled the ER worker. When I didn’t urinate, they decided to forcibly catheterize me. Two ER workers held my legs open while another one shoved the catheter in.
The experience felt violent and terrifying. I felt like I wanted to die due to their force and asked them to kill me, while screaming no. They ignored my pleas and desperate attempts to escape the situation by any means possible. I screamed that I felt like they were raping me. One of the women paused for a second but then continued anyways.
Before my second experience of forced catheterization, I had almost passed out from the sun at a gas station, which led to the ambulance being called. When the EMTs arrived, they decided to conduct a psychiatric evaluation. This resulted in me being detained in the emergency room in Los Angeles, California for hours, even though I was just dehydrated and needed some water.
Again, three people forcibly catheterized me, even though I was totally able bodied and able to use the bathroom myself. I didn’t bother protesting, since I wasn’t listened to the first time and I knew my voice would not matter this time, either. The procedure was for the purpose of drug testing me, even though there was no sign I had taken drugs, and the results came back negative. It is absolutely appalling that healthcare professionals do this forceful procedure to those accused of taking illegal drugs, while they also are able to force people to take legal drugs (i.e. psychiatric drugs) that are just as harmful.
I have also experienced other sexual violations while locked up in psychiatric wards and detained for psychiatric reasons. I was once watched while showering when I didn’t want to shower. The psychiatric hospital staff claimed I had lice, even though I only had dandruff, and used this as grounds to label me as “gravely disabled” and unable to care for myself, and said I therefore needed to be held in the psychiatric ward longer. They then forced me to shower using lice shampoo while three mental health workers watched. I felt like an animal.
Moreover, everyday people are subjected to sexually violating injections in the buttocks, and I experienced this myself. It was incredibly humiliating to have my pants pulled down on top of receiving a harmful injection. I can’t help but wonder whether this specifically is done for the purpose of inspiring fear, intimidation, violation, and control in order to scare patients into taking pills, agreeing to take drugs before their competency hearing, and being compliant. If professionals wanted to make the procedure more humane (not that any forced injection can ever be humane), many drugs can be injected in a patient’s upper arm.
Another aspect of my experience with forced hospitalization that felt especially degrading was when the hospital somehow lost my underwear and I had to wear either their underwear or none at all.
One of the worst aspects of all of this is the fact that the professionals who violated me in this way make a profit from these kinds of abuses. Insurance companies pay for drug tests, even those that require forced catheterization. I have thousands of dollars of debt from my involuntary holds, emergency room visits, and ambulance rides.
For anyone who has been “legally” sexually assaulted by “medical professionals,” you are not alone. The feelings of anger, shame, and violation are possibly worse when it is done legally than when it is done illegally by non-professional perpetrators. This perpetuates silence and victim-blaming. I will stick to Motivationology — a new initiative I am founding — as well as my own goals, ideas, and more positive pursuits instead of so-called “mental health” and its brainwashing and abuses.
We hope that one day, mainstream discussions of sexual violence will include the types of abuses and violations that are currently legal — the acts that occur at the hands of “medical professionals” just because an individual has been given a mental health diagnosis. We hope that survivors of sexual violence in the mental health system will one day no longer suffer in shame and silence but instead be encouraged to speak out and share their stories, and stand with those who have said, “Me too.”
The psychiatric survivors community and critical psychiatry community need to work toward stopping these sexual violations from happening to anyone else. More survivors and critical psychiatry advocates need to speak out about this issue by writing op-eds, holding protests, and engaging in political and social action. The time is now.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.