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.



This is not the first time – it never is

This is not the first time – it never is

[CW/TW: confinement, imprisonment, abuse, murder of disabled people below and at links]  

This incident in Georgia is not the first time disabled children have been imprisoned in cages in our lovely US of A, by the way. It is in fact rather distressing to think about, but here it is in a California school, a home in Toledo, Ohio. Also in Michigan. The two Rockville, MD twins locked in a basement. And worldwide, in Australia and Greece and elsewhere.

I think it’s time for people to think about this. That when a disabled person is abused in some fashion, my reaction is of course horror. But my reaction also is “this is not the first time this has happened.” There are constant patterns of abuse of disabled people. I know someone (disabled) who at age six was locked in the freezing basement of their school for hours. We, the disabled, get locked in basements and cages, more often than you may think.

That scratches the surface of the various abuses;it does not cover the whole iceberg. But I will tell you something that I hope is obvious…. If you’re not one of the people who reacts like I do, with knowing that the type of abuse has happened before: Members of society actively abuse disabled people. Others turn a blind eye. Sometimes it takes the disabled person, like Melissa Stoddard, dying for anyone to act on the knowledge that they had been abused. Members of society also actively excuse our deaths

And most of the time, disabled people are not respected in death. Jillian McCabe threw her six-year-old son, London McCabe, off a bridge in November 2014.An NBC article titled “Jillian McCabe was ‘Overwhelmed’ Before Autistic Son’s Fatal Plunge,” came out, discussing the burdens she was facing. It makes no mention in the headline that she threw him off the bridge to kill him. It justifies her reaction to his 2011 diagnosis of autism. The article goes on to quote a psychologist, Dee Shepherd-Look, “a professor at California State University, Northridge, as saying, “quite frankly, I am surprised this doesn’t happen more often. These children are really unable to be in a reciprocal relationship and the moms don’t really experience the love that comes back from a child — the bonding is mitigated… That is one of the most difficult things for mothers,” followed by saying autistic children can be “rigid and oppositional.”1

Does that go into the iceberg a little for you?

1 Susan Donaldson James and Cassandra Vinograd, “Jillian McCabe was ‘Overwhelmed’ Before Autistic Son’s Fatal Plunge,” NBC News. November 5, 2014. 

Abuse of students with disabilities in school

Recently, near my hometown and current residence, aspecial educator dumped an autistic child into a garbage canwhile taunting him. She had a track record but complaints against her were not taken seriously. This is just one recent example in many cases of educational abuse of children with disabilities. While Georgia has stringent laws in place for these, there are no requirements as for what constitutes punishment. There should be.

“Students with disabilities (served by IDEA) represent 12% of the student population, but 58% of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement, and 75% of those physically restrained at school to immobilize them or reduce their ability to move freely. Black students represent 19% of students with disabilities served by IDEA, but 36% of these students who are restrained at school through the use of a mechanical device or equipment designed to restrict their freedom of movement.”

Restraint and abuse is a rampant problem for students of color and students with disabilities. Despite states making policy changes, students with disabilities continue to be retrained and secluded at a high rate. Oftentimes for students of color, it results in being arrested for having a meltdown, as is the case of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, or being handcuffed for escaping the classroom and climbing a tree while having a meltdown, and being pulled roughly down and handcuffed and restrained.
Many states have no policies regarding restraint and seclusion, and of the states that do, fewer have state regulations and statutes addressing it. According to the Government Accountability Office in 2009, officials in Illinois stated that “seclusion and restraint cases involving children and adults with physical or mental disabilities typically have low rates of prosecution.” In Georgia in 2014, educator Melanie Pickens got away with cruelty to children with disabilitiesby using a clause in Georgia state law,O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1001, that would give her immunity if she was disciplining them believing her actions to be in good faith.
Little has also been done to address the problems of common school-to-prison pipelines, resulting students of color being disproportionately targeted for discipline, especially those who also have disabilities, like Kayleb Moon-Robinson, declared a felon at age 11.

Students are being abused, restrained, handcuffed, and secluded against their will. Students with disabilities and students of color experience this at disproportionately high rates. Federal bills fail to push through the Senate. States slowly enact statutes, but prosecution is low. What is to be done?