Rewriting the Narrative on Psych Ward Abuse in Journalism

Psych Ward Reviews gained a new feature in January 2017: a news article repository of staff-on-patient abuse in hospital psychiatric wards. It is an ongoing effort, both of searches and a morbid set of daily Google Alerts with phrases such as “psychiatric patient abuse.” As part of my search process, I have read over about two hundred articles so far.

One thing of note was that many of the articles on staff-on-patient abuse I found were not in major publications. They were in local news outlets or smaller magazines. And as I knew, there are many failures of psychiatric wards as a crisis care model. These failures can involve staff-on-patient abuse, suicides, ill-maintained facilities, and Medicaid fraud. My focus here is how journalists cover abuse and other failures.

Journalists do so with a few different lines of thought. Many fail to address issues that come with psychiatric wards as the main method of crisis care. These problems include taking away patients’ rights and ability to make decisions. Instead, they discuss issues such as funding and staffing shortages, and overcrowding and bed shortages. However, the reasons for psych ward abuse are power dynamics and ableism.

The system requires institutionalization in secured wards away from the public. Patients then lose their rights (available in theory). The power shifts to doctors and staff, who make decisions about a patient. Many hospitals seek patients for profit. These are settings prone to abuse. We must build a stronger network of community-based crisis care, including peer respite centers and support. There must be meaningful oversight and accountability for any community care providers.

But why don’t journalists talk about creating alternatives to psych wards? The reasoning by many journalists is that shortages result in increased abuse and neglect of patients by staff. They then describe hospital failures as inevitable because of these shortages. But the psych ward system’s issues are structural, rather than wholly solvable with money. Journalists could instead talk about these structural failures. They could do so in many ways.

They could cite the various works around abuse in institutional settings, and question power imbalances. They could push for more accountability and data on abuse rates in articles. They could interview former patients, to see what community options they want. Depending on the size of their platform, they could craft a new crisis care narrative for the broader public. The narrative would present alternatives entrenched in community-based, rights-affirming crisis care.

 

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