In 2015, Australian journalist Daniel Johnson published an article in Independent Australia titled “One Woman’s Horror Story,” about trying to help a friend who was incarcerated against her will in a Sydney hospital based on hearsay from family members. He rightly wrote: “The hospitals are full of these stories.”
I know: I have a horror story of my own. Just like Johnson’s friend, I developed bipolar disorder as a result of domestic violence and endured forced, excessive drugging and being incarcerated against my will at a major public hospital in Sydney, which severely impacted my ability to look after myself. I was in and out of this mental prison for 13 years—not for any crime I committed, but for crimes that my former partner and his colleagues committed. I was “victim-blamed,” had my claims of abuse dismissed, minimised, or ignored, and received biased medical discharge summaries written up based on the hearsay of my abusers.
I have filed a Victim Impact Statement in case my abusers are ever convicted, although I have had no luck finding a lawyer willing to take my case to sue the hospital for malpractice or a journalist to investigate the pattern of corruption there. Till then, I am writing this essay to expose the vile injustices going on in Australia’s mental health system.
I was in an abusive relationship for 24 years. It began the way many such relationships do: I met my ex-partner in the workplace, where we developed what seemed to be a solid professional and personal relationship that turned into romance. Initially very heady and romantic, the relationship moved quickly, with promises of marriage and children all within the space of a few months.
He was quite a deal older than me, far more educated and astute, and very wealthy. He was also incredibly charming, witty, and had a great intellect. It seemed like he ticked every box for a wonderful partner and future husband. I felt that I had literally met my lifetime soulmate. And he frequently referred to me as his. However, within about six months, he started to become increasingly more controlling and abusive, both psychologically and physically. My partner also exhibited very poor impulse control, tolerated frustration poorly, and had issues with anger management. Pretty soon my Prince Charming began to look increasingly like Prince Harming.
Predictably, our working relationship deteriorated and ended acrimoniously, and so I filed a worker’s compensation claim. I later dropped it due to his extreme harassment and the fact that my partner’s insurer said it would not cover him because of his failure to keep our professional and personal relationships separate.
Incredibly, after our 11-year working relationship had ended, we stayed together as a couple for another 13 years—even living together and becoming engaged. During this time, he abused me on all levels: psychologically, physically, financially, and sexually (via exploitation and servitude). I also came to learn that he had a history of violence against women, porn addiction, and sex offending. Why did I stay with him? I was “trauma bonded.” Trauma bonding, as I learned too late, is when the intense cycle of abuse and reconciliation makes the victim feel increasingly dependent and connected to the victimizer.
During this time I sought counseling with a forensic psychiatrist. He told me he thought I had “Battered Woman Syndrome,” which means I believed I deserved my mistreatment and felt hopeless to escape. He also diagnosed me with Stockholm Syndrome.
He said that he did not think that I suffered from “schizophrenia,” because I was “too coherent and too logical in my account of everything.” And he also wrote that the elevated serum cortisol (a stress hormone) in the pathology labs he ordered pointed to my having an affective disorder or more likely a “depressive stress reaction” in response to severe trauma and abuse.
I would have liked to have continued working with that psychiatrist because he was very empathetic and understood my situation. However, he was in private practice and his services were being paid for by my partner’s insurer. Once I lost my job, I could no longer afford to continue seeing him. As a consequence, I was at the mercy of Australia’s public mental health system, and that’s where all of my problems began.
Forced Treatment, No Rights
When I was first admitted to my local public hospital, I breathed a sigh of relief, believing in all the hype you hear in the media of mentally unwell and traumatised patients receiving the “help” they sorely need. However, this could not be further from the truth. What I encountered instead was a mental health system that treats patients like they are criminals. In place of a quiet, peaceful, therapeutic place of healing, I encountered something more akin to prison, and the hospital staff more like prison screws (guards).
I quickly learned the routine. The moment you arrive, all of your bags are searched, including your personal handbag. Your mobile phone and purse are immediately confiscated and not returned to you for your entire stay in hospital, nor are you allowed access to social media. You can request your purse later—that’s if you don’t mind lining up in a queue and waiting for up to four hours for your purse to be released from the hospital’s safe. In the end, you just stop asking for it.
All of your rights as a free citizen are no more. In fact, even the patients and staff refer to your psychiatric stay as “lockdown,” because that is essentially what it is.
All of my hospital admissions were as a “voluntary patient,” but I can’t stress enough that in reality, there’s no such thing as a voluntary patient in the New South Wales (NSW) system. It’s a lie perpetuated by the NSW health department to make it appear that mental health patients have rights, but they don’t.
If you admit yourself to hospital as a “voluntary patient,” presumably you are free to go anytime you wish, and to refuse psychiatric medication and other treatment, so long as you inform the staff of your refusal and that you plan to leave the hospital. As a voluntary patient, you supposedly have the right to change your mind.
However, if you try to assert that right, the hospital just “schedules” (sections) you under the Mental Health Act. In my case, the doctors kept harassing me about accepting the high dosages of medications they wanted to force on me. Otherwise, I was told, I would be scheduled. In other words, accept excessive treatment you do not want, and remain incarcerated against your will, but do it as a “voluntary patient” under duress. Or as one doctor put it, “We can play this game all day if you like, but the result will be the same.”
Though I made my position very clear to the hospital staff, they later wrote on my medical discharge summaries that I kept “changing my mind” and “vacillating between voluntary and involuntary status.”
Gaslighting and Retraumatisation
This was just the beginning of the dishonest and unethical practices at this hospital. What I also encountered was a public mental health system that has no understanding whatsoever about domestic violence or trauma-informed care. If you try to report that you are the victim of domestic and/or sexual abuse, it is immediately cast aside as a “delusion.” Or you’re told that you are “making it up to get attention.”
Nothing can sway them, not even physical evidence of abuse. At one point, I turned up to the emergency department visibly distressed, with medical evidence of a serious sexual assault by my former partner that even required surgery to stem the bleeding. But it made no impact. They treated my sexual assault in a rather cavalier manner, and then later reverted back to referring to my domestic violence as a “fixed delusion,” labeling me with a “persecution complex.” The assault was bad enough, but their disbelief and attitude re-traumatized me. Whatever happened to the doctors’ oath, “First, do no harm?”
The National Health System in the United Kingdom came under fire for the same re-traumatising clinical practices in mental health, described in an article in the Independent by psychologist Jay Watts. In it, Watts calls on mental health professionals to adopt a “trauma-informed care” perspective.
Besides seemingly total ignorance of domestic violence and trauma, what I also encountered was a refusal to look outside the scope of DSM-IV psychiatric diagnoses. Instead, they only seemed interested in applying the default, inaccurate biomedical/genetic explanations and mental illness labels to every patient.
Furthermore, it seems the system has been weaponizing the DSM-IV diagnostic labeling system against women. One would hope that mental health has come a long way since the Freudian era, when women seeking treatment were labeled as having “neurosis,” or “hysteria.” Sadly, while the old diagnoses have now been replaced with different labels, they offer exactly the same invalidating and sexist response to female domestic violence victims, basically calling us neurotic liars.
For example, at one point, a doctor writing a medical report on me described my domestic violence experience as a “persecution hallucination.” Other doctors referred to it as “having some adjustment issues with her boyfriend.” Yeah, I was having trouble adjusting to my partner’s horrific abuse. If it weren’t so serious, it would be funny. Except that women like me are harmed by these discrediting labels. When we are disbelieved, we are being put at risk of further harm by being sent back to live with our abusers. Abused mothers have lost custody of their children and women service members who have been raped by superiors have lost their security clearance and their careers because of false psychiatric labels.
I also learned that if you continue to speak about your abuse whilst you are in hospital, it’s seen as more proof that you are delusional. For this crime, you will be punished with higher doses of medication. The last time I was punished in this manner, it was written up on a discharge summary as “required a high dose to achieve the desired result”—the desired result being my silence.
And if that doesn’t work, then you are punished with further incarceration against your will until you do remain silent. I was told by nursing staff that when I kept talking about my domestic violence to my doctors, this “irritates them,” and if I wanted to be released, I had to “learn to play the game.” If hearing about unpleasant things is irritating, maybe psychiatry isn’t the job for you.
I also found that even when you try to cooperate, you can’t win. During one hospital admission, I made the mistake of telling one of the male doctors “caring for” me that I was feeling better and ready to go home and that I planned to report the abuses to police. For this confession, I was met with a disapproving glare and hauled before a medical tribunal on the pretext that I was “manic.”
The male magistrate at the tribunal upheld the doctor’s decision to section me for a further three to six weeks, or at the doctor’s discretion. Since they didn’t take my reports of abuse seriously in the first place, articulating that I was going to report my abuser was further evidence of derangement in their eyes.
Collaborating with the Enemy
While hospitalized, you have a legal right as to who can be informed of your medical treatment and progress. I gave both verbal and written instructions that this hospital not speak to my abuser or my mother (who, by conspiring with my ex-partner, was complicit in the abuse). This request was largely ignored. Even after I repeatedly told them I didn’t want them to call either of these people, they insisted, claiming that they wanted to get a “clearer picture of what’s been going on.” Not only that, but after I told them about this—you guessed it—they used it as further evidence of my “mental instability.”
Of course, they don’t get a “clearer picture of what’s going on.” They hear what you’d expect to hear from an abuser: “I’m not doing anything,” and “She’s crazy.” Which only serves to reinforce this hospital’s position and original diagnoses.
Then, after the hospital staff had numerous chats with my abusers, they started siding with them, after which they started systematically brainwashing me into believing that the abuses “aren’t real” and that they’re all due to a manifestation of “a chemical imbalance in your brain.” Which ultimately lets your abuser off the hook. To use a spurious, unproven “chemical imbalance theory,” which this hospital heavily promotes, to discredit a person’s experience of domestic violence is another vile injustice.
Year after year, the hospital continued to communicate and collaborate with my ex, to zombify me with drugs—even after Victims of Crime (a government tribunal to whom I reported my abuse) had concluded that my account was truthful and compensated me for personal injury due to my rape.
Johan Hari, the author of the book Lost Connections, which explores the underlying reasons for anxiety and depression, said something that really resonated with me: “We need to stop focusing on chemical imbalances, and start focusing more on power imbalances.”
Reinforcing the Patriarchy
I believe this hospital sees its role as bolstering existing power structures, especially patriarchy. Consider this: It used to employ a neurosurgeon later convicted of killing two sex workers by deliberately overdosing them with cocaine so that he could sexually exploit them. The hospital did everything to cover for this doctor, including concealing this doctor’s criminal conduct from the Australian Medical Association, even though the police had warned them about it, and even going as far as ordering independent psychiatric reports to say that he was “sane” and “rehabilitated.” Once the media got wind of this story, this criminal doctor was promptly jailed and later deported.
This is a perfect example of the biases and misogyny that pervade Australia’s mental health system. I encountered many other women experiencing domestic violence and rape trauma at the hospital, and their treatment was no different from mine. That psychiatric reports can be ordered with such ease to vouch for the sanity of a sex-offending, murdering male doctor while psychiatric reports are written up every day denying the sanity of women who are victims of sexual assault, rape, or domestic violence is the peak of hypocrisy.
For example, during my last hospital admission I met a woman who claimed to be a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her powerful husband, a police officer and prosecutor. He had thrown her out of the house that she shared with their three small children, essentially making her homeless. However, the doctors showed her no sympathy. She told me that she’d seen her medical records, where they’d written up her domestic violence experience as a “persecution complex.” They later told her, “You will have to either go home to your mother or go and live in a group home for other mentally unwell women.” She reluctantly chose the latter. What other choice did she have?
Naming the Crimes
There is something fundamentally wrong with this picture.
As Australian domestic violence victim advocate Rosie Batty once said, we keep on telling victims of domestic violence everything that is “wrong with” them, but we never really tell the perpetrators what is wrong with them.
Had the hospital taken my reports of abuse seriously, as I had pleaded with them to do years earlier, the domestic violence I was subjected to would not have escalated as it later did into the worst traumatic event of my life: a gang rape by my ex and a group of his friends and colleagues. By conferring with the offender, the hospital just served to embolden him, so he felt that he could do whatever he pleased with me.
The hospital not only breached its duty of care to me as a psychiatric patient but also as a rape victim. And they tried to cover it up: I’ve noticed a litany of false statements regarding medical evidence on the discharge summary of my emergency treatment for that serious sexual assault—of which I have written proof to the contrary.
My mind keeps going back to Daniel Johnson’s story about his friend’s experience and the hospital’s response to her domestic violence. I am aghast at the similarities, even down to an incident where I was held down by staff and forcibly injected with powerful anti-psychotics—with several burly security guards wearing black leather gloves present to make sure that I didn’t resist.
Social critic and psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Szasz once said: “Mental hospitals are the POW camps of our unarticulated wars.” I concur: My experience in the public mental health system was akin to something from the Nazi era. What I and other female victims of domestic violence I met endured at the hands of the patriarchal psychiatrists at this major hospital were nothing short of human rights abuses.
Johnson has called for a Royal Commission to look into these crimes. He writes: “What sort of society abides by these sorts of abuses? The same one that detains refugees indefinitely against the [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights (signed by this country). To wit: Article 9: No one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile.” I couldn’t agree more.
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.