The Case of Joshua Spriestersbach: If This Is a Horror Story, What Does it Reveal About Forced Treatment?

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In 2017, Joshua Spriestersbach was asleep on a sidewalk in Hawaii when the authorities came. His only crime was being unhoused—and falling asleep while waiting for food outside a shelter—but he was arrested for another reason. The police mistook him for a different man. They thought he was Thomas Castleberry (whose crimes had landed him in prison in Alaska the year before, in 2016).

Spriestersbach was imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital for almost three years. The more he told the doctors that he was not Thomas Castleberry, the more they believed that he was psychotic.

According to The Guardian, “For two years and eight months, hospital staff and Spriestersbach’s own public defenders refused to believe him, until a hospital psychiatrist finally listened. According to the court document, all it took were a few Google searches and phone calls to confirm that he was on another island when Castleberry was initially arrested.”

Joshua Spriestersbach, after his release. (Vedanta Griffith via AP)

After almost three years of being imprisoned and forced to take drugs against his will, Spriestersbach was suddenly, quietly, released onto the streets. According to the news reports, he had just 50 cents on which to survive.

A defender of forced treatment would probably tell you that this was a sad mistake. At worst, it was incompetence on the part of the hospital staff and the criminal justice system.

There’s an aura of outrage to the news articles about the incident, but it’s a bit confusing. It’s almost as if the papers don’t know exactly why this was wrong. After all, Spriestersbach reportedly does suffer from “mental illness,” and at least one report mentions schizophrenia. Forced treatment is commonplace for people with schizophrenia. So, really, because of this mix-up, Spriestersbach received treatment he would never have gotten if he remained on the streets. So why should we be angry?

Perhaps because we know that imprisoning someone—taking away their rights without just cause—is wrong? But, or so the argument for forced treatment goes, hospitalization is not the same as prison. After all, our society usually supports hospitalizing people with psychosis against their will and forcing them to take neuroleptic tranquilizers (euphemistically called “antipsychotics”). Every day, untold thousands of people are injected with tranquilizers against their will, or watched as they take a pill, forced to open their mouths wide and show nursing staff that they’ve really swallowed it, and they do this in “hospital” units with locked doors and in which they’re allowed no visitors.

Indeed, if Thomas Castleberry—rather than Spriestersbachhad been locked in that hospital and tranquilized for three years, proponents of forced treatment would say this was a good thing. It was for his own benefit.  We certainly would never have read about it in the news as a case of horror.

Of course, psychiatric hospitalization is different from prison—but not in a good way. When a citizen is found guilty of a crime and imprisoned, the person is given a sentence, telling of some length of time the person can be expected to be in prison. And that sentence is supposed to be in line with the severity of a person’s crime. But in a psychiatric hospital, the sentence is indefinite. You don’t serve your time and get released into the world. You’re locked up until the people in charge decide otherwise.

In fact, Spriestersbach’s case never even went to trial because the psychiatrists deemed him incapable of standing trial for his supposed crimes.

And if forced treatment is for our protection, then why don’t we lock up men with a substance abuse problem, or men who have a gun? After all, you’re more likely to be killed by a member of either of those groups than by someone who’s afraid of a voice they hear.

That would be ridiculous, because most men with a substance abuse problem—and most men who own a gun—aren’t going to commit a crime. But neither are most people with psychotic experiences.

We’re left with this question: Why aren’t we, as a society that embraces forced treatment, glad that Spriestersbach got the treatment that he, as someone said to be mentally ill, needed?

Maybe it’s because, in this instance, we were prompted to consider how Spriestersbach felt about the “antipsychotic” drugs he was forced to take.

According to The New York Times: “At the hospital, Mr. Spriestersbach protested when he was forced to attend group sessions for drug users, and employees responded by giving him antipsychotic medications that made him drool and struggle to walk, according to the petition and to Vedanta Griffith, his sister.”

“His shirt was wet from drool, and he was shuffling his feet,” she said. “He was just so medicated.”

In short, psychiatrists locked a person up for almost three years, forced him to attend “therapy” he didn’t want, and when he protested, tranquilized him so much that he was drooling and couldn’t walk. Even if he were Thomas Castleberry, how could this have been helpful?

Perhaps the disconnect here exists because “mental illness” has been equated to physical illness—but somewhere, deep down, we know that that is a false analogy. If it were the case, then Spriestersbach was indeed receiving the treatment he needed, albeit under the wrong name. (There’s no evidence that the doctors used Castleberry’s medical records.) They admitted Spriestersbach (yes, they got the name wrong), they examined him, they found that he met the criteria for a “disorder,” and they “treated” him accordingly.

If this had been a medical issue, here is a description of how he would have been treated:

Spriestersbach was brought to the hospital by emergency personnel after he appeared to be suffering from a heart attack. The police entered his name as “Castleberry.” Spriestersbach informed the staff of his name, and his records were fixed.

Hospital staff examined Spriestersbach, performing an ECG (to check the conduction of heart muscle) and blood tests (to check for proteins leaking into the blood). The tests were informative but not fully conclusive. So the staff performed more tests: an X-ray to look at the size of the heart and blood vessels, and an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to determine how well blood is moving through the heart.

Based on these tests, hospital staff determined that specific drugs which reduce blood clots and control blood pressure would be the best treatments. They determined that surgery was not necessary because of the specific findings. They wrote a prescription, and Spriestersbach was released from the hospital. He was not locked in the hospital until he had fully improved. He was not forced to take the drugs, and in fact let’s say he forgot to fill the prescription and went back to his normal life. The doctors did not check his mouth and police were not called.

But what actually happened?

Spriestersbach was woken up on the street and arrested because the police mistook him for another man. When he protested that he was not that man, no one bothered to check his story or even his fingerprints (likely because he was a homeless person who was confused and agitated after being woken by police and arrested under a name that was not his). Instead, he was taken to a psychiatric hospital, as the authorities believed he was “delusional.”

The hospital staff did not run any tests, as there are no tests for “delusions” or “schizophrenia.” They did not check his genetic profile; there was no blood test; there was no brain scan—none of these tests exist. Or perhaps they did do a brain scan—to rule out the possibility that it was an actual medical illness. Once the scan came up negative—once they didn’t find anything—they concluded that that meant he had schizophrenia and needed to be locked up indefinitely.

What was this determination based on? Well, he met several criteria—he was confused, since he had been mixed up with a different person. He was “delusional” because he said he was not that person. He was agitated and perhaps even became aggressive, since no one would believe him.

The staff promptly gave him a tranquilizing drug, against his will, and he was observed to calm down. Since the “antipsychotic” worked, calming him down, that was further proof that he had “schizophrenia.” No brain scan needed.

For the next two years and eight months, a huge number of staff devoted themselves to “treating” Spriestersbach by tranquilizing him and forcing him to shuffle from room to room to receive “therapy” he didn’t want. Unsurprisingly, his “condition” did not “improve,” so he remained locked in the hospital indefinitely.

What this tells of is the fundamental difference between psychiatric diagnoses and medical illness. First, that there is no biological test for “mental illness.” In fact, if you have a positive result on any biological test, that means you have a medical disorder—the diagnosis of “mental illness” is excluded. For instance, hypothyroidism can cause the experience labeled “depression,” but in that case, a doctor would treat the hypothyroidism (the underlying disorder), and the “depression” (a symptom, not a disorder) would be remedied. Likewise, a brain tumor could cause psychosis, but if that were the case, doctors would treat the tumor (the underlying disorder), and expect the psychosis (a symptom, not a disorder) to be remedied.

Instead, the diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder—even one thought to be a “brain disorder” like schizophrenia—is based on the subjective opinion of a psychiatrist. Does a psychiatrist think that this belief is “delusional”? Does a psychiatrist think that you are too agitated or confused? Does a psychiatrist think that you are not very articulate, talking too much, or too quiet? All of these can get a person labeled “schizophrenic” and forced to take neuroleptics.

And because there is no specific medical finding, there is also no specific treatment. Psychiatrists use “clinical judgment” to select one of the scores of “antipsychotic” drugs that have been created over the past seventy years. How do they decide, when there’s no evidence that any of these drugs are better than the others and no specific finding to guide treatment? They have to rely on their biases—such as believing that the newer drugs are always better, or the influence of ubiquitous TV ads, or, in the worst-case scenario, prescribing the one they receive money from the pharmaceutical industry for promoting.

Beyond all of that, though, what is most notable in Joshua Spriestersbach’s case is that the “treatment” team failed to listen to their patient. Whenever their patient, Spriestersbach, disagreed with them—likely becoming agitated, and rightly so, as he tried to tell them he wasn’t Thomas Castleberry—the psychiatrists drugged him further. They insisted that this meant that he was suffering from anosognosia, which is what psychiatrists call it when you disagree with them about whether you are ill. This is a fact—disagreeing with a psychiatrist about whether you are ill is a key “symptom” of psychosis. And it can prompt a judge to keep a patient under a forced treatment order.

Some psychiatrists may listen to their patients. After all, it seems that one did (after almost three years) eventually think to check out Spriestersbach’s story. But when an individual is said to be seriously mentally ill, American psychiatry, as a profession, has adopted the position that the person is not a reliable witness to their own life.

If a person tells of experiencing the harmful effects of antipsychotics (or other psychiatric medication), a psychiatrist is likely to respond that it’s due to the underlying condition, not the drug. If a person said to be seriously mentally ill stops taking antipsychotic medication (perhaps because of those negative effects), the person is seen as having anosognosia and therefore needs to be forced to take the drugs. If a person experiences withdrawal effects after stopping the drugs, it’s considered a return of the underlying condition, and evidence that the person needs to be on drugs for life.

And if you tell them the whole thing is a case of mistaken identity? Well, just ask Joshua Spriestersbach what can happen then.

***

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.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Most shrinks are not competent and are simply in a position of power and all those who work under them are equally pulled into their world of incompetency and resulting actions.

    That is why second “opinions” and tribunals matter not for someone trying to get unlabeled.
    They operate under a fear and control system, where seldom a shrink has the guts to stand up to the ludicrous sentencing.

    There is nothing “mentally healthy” about shrinks, nor about their power. The very last place you should seek help is from those that are callous and manipulating but too stupid to know it.

    • Imagine someone who feels worthless, powerless and blames themselves for the abuse humanity did to them. They go to a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist tells them yes you are powerless, worthless enough to make you a second class citizen and it is your brains fault. I can fix you and save you from a life of suffering if you buy my drugs. The first thing a psychiatrists does is make the patient feel worse in order to manipulate them into taking the drugs being sold. When this dawns on people, if it ever does they are now addicted to the drugs and in a withdrawal trap.

  2. For 3 years psychiatry jailed and forcibly poisoned* someone by claiming they were delusional. All it took was a few internet searches and phone calls to prove the person was in fact correct. The reason this instance of abuse/torture by psychiatry is so newsworthy is because it showed that psychiatry does not first find out what is true before claiming someone/thing is delusional.

    In the news it was reported that the guy psychiatry tortured is now afraid to leave his sisters house, unable to sleep, socially distant and “depressed” because of what psychiatry with the backing of the government did to him. Psychiatry gave this guy a “mental illness” and none of the people who did it received any punishment.

    *Mortality studies find neuroleptic take several times more years off someone’s lifespan than if they smoked tobacco. A randomized brain study found in 9 months these drugs cause almost 4 times more brain loss than what occurs in an entire lifespan.

  3. FROM MY OWN CASE

    DEAR SIR / MADAM

    Briefly, my Situation concerns:

    One:
    Medically Dangerous Behaviour

    Two:
    My 1980 History in Amsterdam, Holland

    Three:
    My Recent Exposure to Asbestos

    Four:
    Strange Coincidence

    Five:
    Human Rights

    One:
    Medically Dangerous Behaviour

    As far as I was concerned I had recovered in Southern Ireland in 1984 when I was no longer dependent on the Irish Medical System. In October 2018 I consulted a UK based Irish Psychiatrist – who’s OPINION was that I had NOT suffered from ‘Diagnosis’ to begin with.

    Below is an Email from me to my GP Surgery with explanatory information:

    “……………………………………………………

    From: ME
    To: Medical Newton (NHS CENTRAL LONDON (WESTMINSTER) CCG)

    Sent: Friday, 16 November 2018, 00:42:07 GMT
    Subject: Att. All Partners and Dr Baluch

    Dear Sirs/(Madams)

    In your Letter dated October 17 2018 – you seriously misrepresent me.

    TRUST
    My trust in Newton Medical was broken in October of 2012 when (to my horror) I discovered my name had been on a Severe Mental Illness Register since 2002. At this time (2002) I had been working as a Building Subcontractor in the House of Parliament Buildings (and can substantiate this).

    OCTOBER 8 2018 VISIT TO NEWTON MEDICAL. REGARDING HEALTH AND SAFETY ON BUILDING SITES
    On October 8 2018 I explained (and showed ) to the Reception Manager and to Dr Baluch at Newton Medical, that at my last appointment on July 20 2016 Dr Simons had given me in writing a sheet of paper from the Appointment Notes stating that – “he could see no reason that I could NOT work on a Building Site” . While at the same time Dr Simons had provided me with another sheet of paper from a “Legal Adviser” (July 20 2016)

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1s-mEHH5pLC5EzWpxjnOLKcylQOTJ-Kvw/view?usp=drivesdk

    (which made reference to the historical 1986 Irish Record Summary) but also at the the bottom of the page stated – that I had a “Diagnosis of Schizophrenia…” and “had NOT DISPUTED this diagnosis..”.

    I explained on October 8 2018 that I had shown and discussed both of these contradictory statements received in July 20 2016 with a Building Health and Safety Officer who advised me to get this contradictory situation resolved – as the medical suggestions could undermine my credibility, and could affect me in the event of an accident on a Building Site.

    I have not suffered any disability in my 30 years in the UK; but Medical Claims of Present day Severe Mental Illness are invalidating. I presumed Newton Medical (promoting the disability) to be the first place to approach – this is why I called to the Surgery on October 8 2018.

    DISTRESS
    When I clearly demonstrated the Malpractice properties of the 1986 Irish Record Summary to Dr Simons in two interviews in October/November 2012 – at the end of both of these interviews Dr Simons shirt was completely saturated and sticking to his body (he was genuinely traumatised).
    But, there is no mention anywhere on my records of this Malpractice.

    MY BACKGROUND
    I made Full Recovery in 1984 as a Result of carefully tapering from the Modecate Depot Injection with the help of Practical Psychotherapy – and returned to normal life and independence.

    Recovered 1
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1PW-wn9GOkiyWAbdzgXuC8cDS-7UPEj0-/view?usp=drivesdk

    Recovered 2
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/19xYpA4O4h9h45b_H2PtSBTNFx3ErE-MK/view?usp=drivesdk

    Adverse Drug Reaction Warning Request Letter sent to Galway Nov. 8 1986

    ADR Request ltr Pg 1
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0zhbh8V4MBAZlVTbHdBRDFFSHc/view?usp=drivesdk

    ADR Request ltr Pg 2
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0zhbh8V4MBAZ0otNjFyN0NJajA/view?usp=drivesdk

    ADR Request Ltr Pg 3
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0zhbh8V4MBAcExwMzhEMVRzdm8/view?usp=drivesdk

    MALPRACTICE:
    The Irish Record Summary dated November 24 1986 was Sent To UK In Response:- but WITHOUT Requested ADR WARNING

    Irish Record Summary Pg 1
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0zhbh8V4MBATlNoNTlpYy11X28/view?usp=drivesdk

    Irish Record Summary Pg 2
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0zhbh8V4MBAMmlqS18xQVZlcms/view?usp=drivesdk

    Wellness Presentation at Galway in November 1980, according to Dr Fadel https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0zhbh8V4MBANjBTZEtkbjBhMkU/view?usp=drivesdk

    Dr Donlon Kenny False Reasurrance Letter November 1986
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0zhbh8V4MBAeUFLam5rYmtXd3c/view?usp=drivesdk

    AKATHISIA.
    Near Fatal Modecate Experience 1. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1EY4XDLt04KgmCjg_5wXU-kbVezo_DxL4/view?usp=drivesdk

    Near Fatal Modecate Experience Pg 2
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1YTWxPJTtNeTDM9eewkHoSUJr0WpBpu4b/view?usp=drivesdk

    Dr Allen Frances (DSM IV) 1983 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/16313058_Suicide_Associated_with_Akathisia_and_Depot_Fluphenazine_Treatment

    https://rxisk.org/akathisia/

    “…Significant symptoms of akathisia occur in:

    around 20% of people on an antidepressant.

    at least 50% of people on an antipsychotic. On higher doses, this rises to 80% or more..”

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akathisia

    “..Around half of people on antipsychotics develop the condition…”

    “…..Neuro-psychologist Dennis Staker had drug-induced akathisia for two days. His description of his experience was this:

    “..It was the worst feeling I have ever had in my entire life. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy…” ”

    Drug induced Akathisia is medically acknowledged to cause suicide.

    “Depot Antipsychotic Revisited Research Paper 1998” From Galway Psychiatrist Dr PA Carney.

    https://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/ps.49.10.1361-b.

    About 4 out of 10 of the people on these drugs will attempt Suicide.

    I notice that both Dr Simon Gordon and Dr Balucha are on the GP Commissioning Governing Board.

    Yours Sincerely
    ME
    …………………………………………………….”

    Two:
    My 1980 History in Amsterdam, Holland

    In the summer of 1980 I spent several months working in Amsterdam as a decorator, and staying at Barndesteeg 21, 1012 BV Amsterdam, The Netherlands (prior to returning to London).

    At Barndesteeg 21, I had been socially acquainted with a Northern Irish Born Again Christian who (closely) matches the description of the person below

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_McGrady

    “Kevin McGrady” had at the time, been concerned about a conversation we were supposed to have had that I couldn’t place.

    There was NO mention of Amsterdam on the UK side of my Medical Records.

    There was no Diagnosis from the (Maudsley Hospital UK) Psychiatrist but a strong suggestion of me taking ‘Street Drugs’, which I had continually denied. I had denied consuming street drugs; but in hindsight I can trace the circumstances of a “poisoning” (in Holland).

    Three:
    Recent Exposure to Asbestos
    Asbestos Exposure is not a casual issue.

    Exposure dates:
    November 30, 2020 to December 7, 2020
    And
    January 4, 2021 to January 7, 2021

    The email below will give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

    I also have an email trail, and photographic evidence.

    “………………………………………………….

    From: ME

    To : Health and Safety Executive Appeals
    [email protected]

    5 Mar at 08:26

    FTA RAY LUNT ASBESTOS EXPOSURE FULHAM COLLEGE SW6 6SN REF 561829/563230

    ASBESTOS EXPOSURE
    At:- Fulham College Boys School, Kingwood Road London SW6 6SN

    Dear Mr Lunt

    Concerns Officer Safety Reply
    In her Email of January 20 2021 Concerns Officer Moira Caddick acknowledged the textured Ceilings in the rooms I had worked on, as containing Asbestos. She then claimed the ceilings to be safe, whereas (in parts) they were peeling.

    ENVIROCHEM ASBESTOS SURVEY
    You can take NO reassurance whatsoever that the areas I worked in were investigated as part of the “R+D Asbestos Survey” for the presence of Asbestos.

    The R+D Survey makes it clear in its DISCLAIMER on Pg 2, that the Survey provided no re assurance to anybody other than the Client. It also indicated the Program and Scope of the Survey to be by agreement between the Client and Environchem.

    “Following the issue of this survey report, responsibility to any parties for any matters arising, which may be considered outside of the agreed scope of work, will not be accepted by Envirochem”

    The trust you put in Kate McAdam, seems inappropriate (and confused).

    (It seems odd to me also, that the son of Kevin McLoughlin MBE, would direct me into the 1st Area of toxicity).

    Yours Sincerely

    ME

    ……………………………………………………”

    Four –
    Strange Coincidence
    In 1980 prior to going to Amsterdam I shared a flat at 34 Fordingley Road, London W9, with individuals by the names of Farouque Abdillahi and Sahid Gheithy. In the 2000s I notice Farouque Abdillahi is “promoted” as having been Princess Dianas designer by people like ex President Clinton and Prince Charles.

    Zanzibars Wikipedia Page https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zanzibar

    Under Notable People
    “..Farouque Abdillahi, who was Princess Diana’s designer.[143..”

    I find this to be a strange coincidence.

    Five –
    Human Rights
    Had I been Severely Mentally Ill for the past 35 years I would have cost Several Million Pounds – I have cost nothing.

    Yours Sincerely

    ME

  4. It’s even more Kafkaesque than that.

    When the Hawaii Innocence Project first tried to clear Spriestersbach and get him released they applied to the state Attorney General’s office for documents pertinent to his case. They were refused.

    Why?

    According to AG officials he wasn’t entitled to them because Joshua Spriestersbach wasn’t the listed defendant. Thomas Castleberry was.

  5. This story is as much about 21st century capitalism as it is about psychiatry. Does Spriestersbach receive different “treatment” if he has a wallet with an ID and a residence in an upper-middle class neighborhood, a bevy of credit cards, family and friends with influence, etc.? But this story’s not entirely misrepresentational, psychosis, by its very definition, is rife throughout. Nothing sends a chill down my spine more than supremely confident, well credentialed professionals carrying out their marching orders; the “usual cruelty” the necessary affirmation of the professionals’ providence viz the subject’s guilt.

  6. Excellent article. This part of it below, jumps out:

    “…What this tells of is the fundamental difference between psychiatric diagnoses and medical illness. First, that there is no biological test for “mental illness.” In fact, if you have a positive result on any biological test, that means you have a medical disorder—the diagnosis of “mental illness” is excluded…”

    Surely, what this report shows, is that it was the authority figures running this particular mental health system – who were perhaps ‘delusional’ themselves? Were any of this mental health system’s own authority figures, diagnosed and sectioned, for psy-hospitalising, the wrong person?

    The time is surely approaching fast, for citizens and law makers, right around our world, to vote to jettison the DSM-V and abolish all ‘mental health laws’ and ‘mental health policies’ that support the DSM-V (and similar parts of the ICD-10) – in any way.

    First, however, perhaps we ourselves might need to stop turning every citizen into a ‘patient’ by cold turkey quitting this arguably current neoliberal captialist habit of psy-medicalising all our painful, unpleasant and society shamed human feelings and emotions, as ‘mental health issues’.

    Thanks again for writing this report.

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