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In the belly of the beast…. surviving the mental health system 


It has felt like time spent  in the belly of the beast. 

For a few days Linda lived a nightmare.  No…. she still lives a nightmare knowing that what happened to her could happen again to her or countless other people under the slimmest of excuses with seemingly not much anyone can do about it.  A system which should do no harm was harm. 

On Thursday October 12 at 3 o’clock in the morning she was involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

Her crime, as strange as it seems, was that she admitted to a crisis worker that when she was 17 she had made a suicidal gesture.  She is now 62.  The crisis worker evidently said, “…. If you tried it once you will try it again.”

The morning started off innocent enough.  She had made a call to her case manager asking for his help in seeing a doctor to get help with sleep.  She was withdrawing from ambien and just not sleeping.  The lack of sleep was causing seizures and she needed help.  The case manager kept interrupting her and she got mad at him.   He is not good with her neurology and they had previous conflict. He wanted people to shut up and listen.  Linda is not a good shut up person. He told her after a minute  he was transferring her to the Crisis Response Team to talk about medication (I know it makes no sense).   

She tried to tell him that was unnecessary.  I guess he thought her being angry was a psychiatric problem.  There is a lot about how this happened that at the time seemed like nonsense and even more so now. 

 Crisis response came on the phone and she tried to explain the medical issues to them.  They told her they couldn’t “solve” her problems.  She told them that she didn’t want them to, that the conversation was unnecessary  and hung up.  

A few minutes later the police showed up at her door and forcibly took her to the the the emergency room at Methodist Medical Center in Oak Ridge.  They told her to bring her meds.  I wonder what would have happened if she got angry, if she yelled, if she was not compliant.  So many tragedies have happened in the most innocent of circumstances.  An encounter between police and a person in mental health crisis is so dangerous.  Linda was lucky.  Too many people are not.  

 She arrived at the ER at approximately 1pm.  Late in the afternoon someone from the Crisis Response team finally saw her. She had no real interaction with hospital staff really the entire time she was there No questions answered.  No support. No nothing.  She was left to her fears.  No one tried to help. 

She told them when she could or when she thought someone might listen that she was not suicidal.  I don’t think anybody cared.  No one listened.  

When guy from the Crisis Response Team asked her about her history she told him that she had made a gesture when she was 17.  He said if she would do it once she would do it again.  As bizarre as it sounds. 

The story gets stranger there.  He evidently also said that she had a major fight with me and I was in danger from her.  I hadn’t seen her in a week.  There was no fight, no fight ever, no danger. What he distorted to come up with that story is totally unclear. Linda is still not sure where that came from. 

She was told later that  a Dr.  McCarty had decided to commit her.  But Dr. McCarty never saw her, never talked to her. She simply went by what the crisis worker said.  She was not told why she was being committed, just that she was.  Finally later in the evening another doctor came in (Dr. McCarty had went home) and told her the substance of the “accusations” that she was both a danger to herself and to me.  Two friends from Oak Ridge were in the room and directly heard that conversation.  They later told me that they felt like we had had stepped through the looking glass. 

My car was dead and I had no way to get there.  We were over 20 miles apart.  When I found out she was there I called constantly trying to find out what was going on.  They  told me “not to worry”  that they were watching her on the monitor and she was “okay.”  She tells me she had three seizures that were basically ignored while she was “being watched”.  At 12 midnight the seizure meds that were due at 10 had, still not been given.  I called after midnight and demanded that she be given her meds, that any further delay was negligence.  Her meds were not given until 3.  

She never got a chance to speak for herself.  The doctor who admitted her never saw her.  She never got to question the crisis team’s “assessment.” She was guilty without a trial.  She was guilty without even a conversation.  It was never about solving a “crisis” as much as it was about showing who was in charge. I am really not sure why they had to show they were in charge.   The message to Linda was clear.  It was the violence against her existence. The message was clear.  The whole experience was traumatic.  It was the poorest of medical care and neither honest or fair.  They did it because they could.  

Why was getting mad at your case manager a psychiatric crisis? 

Why was telling crisis response team that a conversation you neither asked for or even understood why it was happening was unnecessary the cause of a police emergency? 

She spent 12-13 hours isolated in hospital emergency room and maintained her composure under circumstances most would not.  How does this prove she is a danger to herself or others? 

What moved this horrible  sequence of events other than a system which regularly violates the human rights of those it serves with assurances it is “all for their good.”  

It is not simply “bad” workers although the people she met were most assuredly that.  It is a system that makes them possible and unchecked. 

The next afternoon she met with the doctor from the psychiatric hospital and explained the above sequence to him.  He was amazed and said she should have never been committed and didn’t think she belonged there.  I have been involved in the mental health system in one way or another for 47 years and this is the first time I have ever heard of a psychiatrist saying an admission to a psychiatric hospital was unnecessary.   God bless him for his integrity.  It would have been easier for him to lie. She was set to be discharged on Monday. Finally late Monday she was. 

The trauma to her has been real, substantial and will be a source of real pain for a long time.  She has cried through every phone conversation I have had with her.  She has been scared.  She has been demeaned.  Her dignity as a human being has been assaulted.  Her rights have been ignored in a ridiculously process.  They have hurt Linda to the core of her soul. 

She came home Monday.  She told me even in the short time there how violated she had felt.  She told me that her and two other people had witnessed a staff member doing seriously unethical things.  The other two people told her in no uncertain terms that people who told on staff got into trouble. No one told. 

We have filed complaints.  We contacted the office of the Commissioner of mental health.  The performance of the crisis response team is being investigated.  We have spoken to the people at the hospital.  More remains yet to be done. 

The validity of the entire mental health system is based on the assumption of benign intent…. No harm is meant. 

There was nothing benign about what happened to Linda.   She is not alone.  Many have had similar experiences or worse.  Many did not have a professional to say this is wrong.  Many don’t ever know of any professional to ever say anything is wrong. We have already found people who are supportive of us.  But the truth is that despite our determination to fight neither of us are okay or will be for a while.

I am worried about Linda.  She has been assaulted on many levels.  She could use some support.  If you would like to lend an ear, share your heart or even to tell her she is not alone she is most easily found on Facebook. It would matter a lot.  

The measure of the mental health system should not be how readily they diagnose people, or treat “mental illness.”  It should be on how they treat people and the message they give them about life and about themselves.  It should not be about coercion and compulsion.  It should be about a humane system that celebrates the dignity and worth of those it says it wants to help.

I don’t know if anything we say or do will have any effect.  Perhaps not but untold others have had similar or worse experiences.  Sometimes maybe all you can do is say, “We are people too and this is wrong.”

We can be better people with each other and no program, or system, or process should see itself as immune to that expectation.