Patients violent, or victims?

by Rob Wipond, July 29, 2010

Is The Tyee too influenced by the nurses union?

Ordinarily progressive, BC's Tyee just released a one-sided article filled with misdirected, prejudiced hate. In "Protect Us from Assaults, Say Psyche (sic) Nurses", staff at Victoria's Eric Martin Pavilion complain about sometimes being victims of insult or abuse from their psychiatric patients. The inflammatory article predictably provoked further fierce rants in the comments section attacking people diagnosed with mental illnesses.

Notably, not a single ex-patient was interviewed. Yet after, say, a prison riot or protest blockade, reasonable journalists naturally ask "Why did they riot? Why did they blockade?" In this case, it's assumed people diagnosed with mental illnesses are commonly violent.

Statistically, they're less likely to perpetrate violence than the general population, and more likely to be victimized by it. And if a mental patient does have criminal or violent tendencies, he's usually sent to a prison or high security forensic psychiatric facility. At the EMP, you're more likely to admit your mother, depressed about your father's death, or take in your best friend when he's not sleeping after losing his job. So now we ask, "Why are my mother and best friend suddenly insulting and abusing nurses?"

The article rightly blames part of it on various effects from the policy bumbling and economic cutbacks of the Vancouver Island Health Authority and the BC Liberals. But could it also be of relevance that under BC's Mental Health Act patients in psychiatric hospitals are commonly detained indefinitely without charge and can be subjected to restraints, forced drugging, electroshock or solitary confinement? Might it be that mental patients themselves are just as frequently victimized by abusive nurses, doctors and security staff, but few journalists take their testimonies seriously? These questions are never addressed in the Tyee article.

Tellingly, in 2008, the union representing nurses at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health launched a similar media strategy. (I reviewed much of that story here.) They were trying to drum up support for their demands through a billboard campaign that featured close-ups on a battered woman who, supposedly, was a typical CAMH nurse. After backlashes, some even coming from within CAMH, the union apologized and agreed that harmony on psychiatric wards is a shared project. The union also ran counter ads to help dispel "the myth of the violent mental patient". I'd like to see the Tyee run an apology and correction soon, too.

Rob Wipond has been writing on mental health issues for 15 years.

Copyright © 2010, Rob Wipond