The things I want don’t change when I’m unwell.

indigo daya the age

Photo: Justin McManus

The service that was supposed to be there to help me was recreating my worst horrors. It breaks my heart.

[New mental health advocacy to support compulsory patients]

[Miki Perkins, The Age]


There’s a story in The Age today about Victoria’s new Independent Mental Health Advocacy service, which includes an interview with me about my own experience of compulsory treatment.

I hope this new service means that people are able to get better choices than I did.

In the article Chris Tovey, the head of Legal Aid’s mental health and disability unit, said ‘The whole experience can be very disempowering, [y]ou have your liberty taken away, your bodily integrity taken away.’

I absolutely agree. And the problem, of course, is that the very last thing we need in the midst of a mental and emotional crisis is to feel we have less power, let alone less safety in our own bodies. Empowerment is one of the central processes of recovery. And choice is one of the central principles of responding to people who’ve experienced trauma.

Like the majority of people who end up as consumers in mental health services, I have a history of childhood trauma. But no-one ever asked about this. My experiences were only seen through the lens of biochemical frameworks. I had a chemical imbalance in my brain. I needed medication to fix me.

There were so many lost opportunities for mental health clinicians to ask about my childhood trauma and to understand my distress. So many lost opportunities to offer me counselling services and peer support that could have helped.

Instead I got forced treatments that recreated my original trauma and actually caused further mental and emotional harm. I have never understood why the Hippocratic Oath seems to be so less relevant in psychiatry compared to other areas of health. But I have hope that we are beginning to change this, in part by speaking our truths about what compulsory treatment means in the lives of real people.

I am lucky that I was able to find healing outside of traditional mental health services. I was lucky that I knew so many extraordinary peers who could give me hope, courage and support. I was lucky that I found the Hearing Voices Movement, and a fabulous, feminist sexual assault counsellor. I’m lucky that I’m still here to tell my story.

But recovery shouldn’t come down to luck. It should be a matter of routine practice. I hope that more advocacy helps to make this a reality.

  1. Great article.

    The government’s focus on mental health, and calls for more services, are encouraging. But more of the same will not improve the situation.

    International and Australian surveys show that the public, including service users and their families, prefer talking therapies and social support to the ‘label and drug’ approach.

    Recent studies confirm that the public is right to believe that mental health problems are caused not by chemical imbalances and genetic predispositions, as the drug companies and a dwindling number of psychiatrists claim, but primarily by factors like poverty, stress, violence, child abuse, etc.. Since distress and despair are not medical illnesses but understandable reactions to these adverse life events, they tend to respond best to human not chemical (or electroshock) responses.

    Services rely too much on anti-depressants and anti-psychotics, which have repeatedly been shown to be no more effective than placebo for most recipients. These drugs, like the anti-ADHD drugs given to more and more Australian kids, have dangerous adverse effects.

    To match recent advances in Europe we urgently need to listen to service users and to the research and then reallocate funding from relatively ineffective drugs and hospitals towards more humane,
    evidence-based and safe social and psychological approaches.

    Professor John Read
    Psychological Sciences
    Swinburne University of Technology
    03 9214 8040

    • Thank you John. I absolutely agree. We need a substantial rethink of mental health services so that counselling, therapy and peer support are part of standard practice, and so that mental health and primary health services understand the role of adverse life events in mental health problems.

      I think most people imagine that inside a psychiatric hospital there is loads of group therapy and individual counselling. How surprised they would be to see that it is mostly pills, being observed, and being left to watch the telly.

      I find it so sad that so many opportunities for recovery are lost by our current, ‘one-track’ model of clinical mental health care that is basically about compliance, pills and ECT. If anything, the current system contributes to perpetuating disability and disadvantage.

      I also can’t help but wonder how much money is wasted as we stick to these simplistic models that don’t address people’s underlying issues. Supporting us to truly heal is an investment in our potential, and would almost certainly have powerful economic benefits from these types of changes. I estimate that I cost health services over $400,000 in mental health care, and most of that money was wasted on keeping me sedated, disempowered and feeling hopeless. Today I pay more tax each year than I used to earn in a year on the disability pension. Recovery isn’t just good for us, it’s good for the country.

      It is hard to understand why the mental health system remains so stuck…

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