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“Institutionalized”: some personal observations

September 13, 2012

Suicidal Tendencies – Institutionalized + Lyrics

Posting a link to this video earlier, I couldn’t help but think of a (paraphrased) comment on one instance of the video on YouTube, which I couldn’t find today. It may have been removed for copyright reasons. But, “Ah, the ’80s, when parents locked up their kids instead of just medicating them quietly at home!”

I’m not going to add any specific content warnings, because I figure that if you’ve been there, you have a pretty good idea what triggering stuff might get discussed here.

I have held off on writing in more detail about this, in part because Mental Illness: Still Stigmatised! (I’m Shocked Too). And a lot of people are liable to assume that if something that drastic happened, you were/are really fucked-up and deserved it in some way, and nothing you say after that can be taken seriously. (Note: I am not suggesting this is right, no matter what is going on.) Not surprisingly, it’s also still hard to even think about. But, this is an important topic, not just in the recent history context, but because the same things are still happening now. Not to the same extent, AFAICT because the extent of insurance fraud understandably made companies less inclined to pay for inpatient or even outpatient “treatment”, but they are still happening.

I got in on the end of the ’80s boom in (often for-profit) adolescent psych confinement, after a rather spectacular meltdown*. (Lucky me!) The local not-for-profit facility right across the river being full, I ended up taken in the middle of the night to a for-profit facility about 45 minutes away. I am not going to say which one, but it was run by a large corporation which has since gotten in trouble for assorted fraudulent and abusive practices in general medicine contexts on two different occasions. (Medicare and Medicaid fraud were what finally did them in. If you can call still operating, with your former CEO while all this was going on getting elected as Governor of Florida, “done in”.) You may be able to imagine that things might have been worse in some ways for “crazy” kids who had absolutely no power.

There are going to be a lot of scare quotes in here, because my head might explode using the language in a more straightforward manner.

Before I get into more about my experiences, a little context on the growth of this industry in the ’80s, from a psych hospital industry report:

Some industry growth was attributed to increases in patient insurance coverage for mental health care and came as a result of changing social attitudes during the 1980s when the image of mental health care lost much of its stigma. Demand for many services increased, and insurance companies expanded coverage of these services in response to public pressure. Consequently, many people who had previously avoided psychiatric treatment for financial reasons sought to obtain assistance. Between 1985 and 1990, the number of insurance providers for mental health care increased 500 percent, a trend that was projected to continue into the twenty-first century.

Psychiatric hospitals in the United States also developed comprehensive health promotion services. In the 1990s, more than 62 percent of psychiatric hospitals offered patient education services. Outside of the hospital establishments, 35 percent of psychiatric hospitals were engaged in community health promotion, and an additional 37 percent in work-site health promotion.

Key among the expanded service roster developed by psychiatric hospitals were programs that addressed the psychiatric and psychological problems of children and adolescents. In 1986 more than 20 percent of the patients in psychiatric hospitals were under 18 years old, and by the 1990s, more than 70 percent of psychiatric hospitals offered programs specially designed for this age group. Such programs emphasized outpatient care in an effort to encourage teens to seek treatment without the fear of inpatient hospitalization.

Maybe this was the case in some parts of the industry, but not in any of the ones I had experience of. Yes, they did want to suck people into outpatient services, often under the threat of being admitted again if you were not “compliant”, but there was big money in locking kids up. I left in the paragraph about “education” and “community health promotion”, because that is one of the things that hospital corporations have gotten smacked over in other medical contexts:

The company illegally claimed non-reimbursable marketing and advertising costs as community education

That would be beyond coming up with more serious diagnostic labels than were warranted, specifically to bilk insurance companies, which I believe was mentioned in both links about the fraud. And this was far from the only company engaging in these exact practices. People needed to be educated about the need for their for-profit services. I remember the ads, both about signs of general mental health trouble and signs of possible drug use, many of which–surprise!–advised you to call the hospital’s hotline if you thought someone you knew might be having a problem. A lot of them, indeed, targeted minors.

As Mark Prindle put it, in a music review:

I don’t know what things are like for young people now, but back in my day this was a serious concern. We were all one nervous parent away from being locked in a Youth Crazyland Building, where we presumably would remain until we agreed to cut our hair, dress preppy and listen to Phil Collins.

I was somewhat lucky in that my parents didn’t feel a right, much less need, to try to control that kind of thing. I could have purple hair and listen to “depressing” music all I wanted to, and nobody got concerned about that. (They just freaked out over other stuff which often had as much to say about a person’s mental health.) But, yeah, a lot of kids really were in that kind of position. And I do get the impression that this is enough of a generational thing that it might sound overblown anyway, to some people who haven’t lived it.

From a 1999 interview with Mike Muir:

K2K: “Institutionalized” was based on a real thing?

MM: Yeah, all stuff that happened to me and my friends. Basically there was a money-making scam. People don’t take care of their kids and then all of the sudden they’re 14 and they can’t brag about them. They show their baby pictures. They had these commercials that said, “Does your kid get upset when things don’t go his way?” and blah, blah, blah. “If they answer YES to 7 or more of these questions, then they have a drug or alcohol problem.” I used to answer yes to every one of those questions and I never did any drugs or alcohol. It’s called Being Normal. It’s like people don’t want to be parents. Parents responsibilities start when they’re young, so that when they don’t like who the person is when they’re older, it’s more of a reflection of the parents being bad as far as I’m concerned. Then they send them away to these camps. One by one I see my friends get taken away to these camps, almost like because their parents couldn’t brag about them.

Some kids really were having some kind of problems, including me. But, IME, sometimes it really did seem to be that simple, based on the kids not fitting well into the roles parents had in mind. I wish those were some kind of straw bad parents being described. In some other cases, AFAICT, there was some more serious scapegoating going on, in abusive situations. Remember that we are talking about legally mandated abuse reporters here.

I am trying to say this carefully (a lot of this stuff, actually), since I cannot afford years in court over a libel case. I can only talk about what I directly heard and saw, with no documentation possible, especially because anything that could possibly record was banned for patients. (Supposedly to protect our privacy, but that didn’t seem like the only reason at the time. They are probably having a harder time enforcing that, these days, now that it’s not all big clunky cassettes.) But, I personally knew several kids who kept running away from home, and there was no apparent interest in finding out why they needed to run off and/or stay stoned a lot to deal with their home situations. The cops would eventually catch them after they’d run away again, and take them for a usually court-ordered inpatient psych stay. Where, in that particular for-profit hellhole I ended up in, they got called selfish brats who didn’t care about anyone else and were destroying their families, to their faces. Even when at least one I know of said she was being hit and talked to horribly at home. What she described sounded like a really (and plausibly!) bad violent alcoholic home situation, and I heard that with my own ears, in a group “therapy” session. That particular 14-year-old child was told to stop blaming other people, get off the “pity potty”, and take responsibility for what she was doing to hurt other people.  I heard that too, and I wish I could forget some of the stuff I did hear in there. That was their main idea of “therapy” (more on that later, from experience). My mom met that girl’s parents in some bullshit weekend parent support session, and they struck her as total abusive assholes then, who both showed up drunk; the focus there was totally on scapegoating the kids, to the point that my parents never attended another session and actually mentioned it to me as a load of crap, but they were still convinced it was “for my own good” to leave me there. (Plus, threats of the insurance refusing to pay if you pulled your kid out against medical advice, at $1000+ a day before tests, etc. even in early 1989.)

The parents were the ones with the insurance plans keeping everyone in money, so the kids got openly scapegoated to the point of piling on more emotional abuse and blaming them for everything that was going wrong. No exaggeration. Not only did they not help kids who needed help, they justified and actually piled onto the abuse. This is one of the aspects that it makes me both angriest and most despairing to think about, maybe even more so as an adult. They didn’t need to beat people in there; what they did do was maybe worse. And all under the guise of “helping”.

My mother had problems of her own. I am pretty sure that the scapegoating message appealed to her on some level (as the Family Super Mega-Scapegoat), and that being explicitly told that I was the whole problem in the family helped lead to a lot of unpleasantness. The situation at home was not nearly as bad in a lot of ways as that girl’s (or so many others’), but that is unlikely to help in any situation where there are real family problems going on. Or any other kind of situation. That’s just mean.

It wasn’t just the boot camps he mentions, though those are in some ways more obviously horrible than the hotel-looking surroundings where the abuse is less obvious. (Funny how they get more attention when they’re used explicitly for kids perceived as QUILTBAG rather than just “crazy”, eh? Especially since that’s not an unusual way of being considered “crazy” and “maladjusted” in a more secularized way. See also my earlier “DADT” post. And, no, I am not suggesting that locking up kids to try to change their sexual orientation/gender identity/whatever is in any way acceptable. I’m suggesting that nobody could possibly deserve that kind of treatment.) These are still running for “troubled” kids (and there are so many ways of being “troubled); I was appalled to see that the freaking LAPD has been running at least one, using public school facilities, if not so surprised that they’re under investigation. But, as Amanda pointed out so well:

There are tremendous human rights abuses going on in certain institutions, yes, and they need to be fixed as soon as possible. But the nature of these reports worries me. They make it look like if you just cleaned up the walls, gave the inmates food and medical care, and stopped beating people, that these places would be acceptable. While these are basic human needs, meeting these needs does not mean freedom. It doesn’t even mean freedom from abuse.

Word. Enabling and, yeah, even encouraging further abuse in already-troubled families is just plain evil. Especially when done for profit. That is just low. And that is just one example of the more deniable kinds of abuse that continue to go on.

Though I’ve mentioned some cases where there were really some obvious problems so far, that was actually one of the things that struck me as soon as I started interacting with my fellow inmates: I was expecting some pop culture stereotyped horror of a mental hospital, and the kids I met were so normal. There were a couple of people there after suicide attempts, but other than that, of all 35 or so on the same unit when I was, nobody seemed to have any worse problems than the kids I knew at school. Even the runaways, a couple of which were kids I knew from school during a later stay closer to home. (Though they had no reason to focus on bullying me, and I got along no problem with most of my fellow “crazies”. Seriously.)

And we get around to the not horribly surprising Unjustified Psychiatric Commitment in the U.S.A.** An excerpt:

In 1992, U.S. Representative Patricia Schroeder of Colorado held hearings investigating the practices of psychiatric hospitals in the United States. Rep. Schroeder summarized her committee’s findings as follows: “Our investigation has found that thousands of adolescents, children, and adults have been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment they didn’t need; that hospitals hire bounty hunters to kidnap patients with mental health insurance; that patients are kept against their will until their insurance benefits run out; that psychiatrists are being pressured by the hospitals to increase profit; that hospitals ‘infiltrate’ schools by paying kickbacks to school counselors who deliver students; that bonuses are paid to hospital employees, including psychiatrists, for keeping the hospital beds filled; and that military dependents are being targeted for their generous mental health benefits.  I could go on, but you get the picture” (quoted in: Lynn Payer, Disease- Mongers: How Doctors, Drug Companies, and Insurers Are Making You Feel Sick, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1992, pp. 234-235)…

The result has been an increase in the number of psychiatric hospitals in recent years, “from 220 in 1984 to 341 in 1988”.  This increase in the number of psychiatric hospitals has resulted in keen competition between hospitals and psychiatrists for patients. “Keeping all those psychiatric beds filled is critical, and administrators are aggressively ensuring that they will be.  Hard-sell TV, radio, and magazine ads (up to tenfold in the past few years, according to Metz) are ubiquitous…Some facilities even resort to paying employees and others bonuses of $500 to $1,000 per referral.  …

Rebellious teenagers used to be grounded.  New they’re being committed.  Increasingly, parents are locking up their unruly kids in the psychiatric wards of private hospitals for engaging in what many therapists call normal adolescent behavior. Adolescent psychiatric admissions have gone up 250 or 400 percent since 1980, reports Holly Metz in The Progressive (Dec. 1991), but it’s not because teens are suddenly so much crazier than they were a decade ago.  Indeed, the Children’s Defense Fund suggests that at least 40 percent of these juvenile admissions are inappropriate, while a Family Therapy Networker (July/Aug. 1990) youth expert puts that figure at 75 percent” (Lynette Lamb, “Kids in the Cuckoo’s Nest  Why are we locking up America’s troublesome teens?”, Utne Reader, March/April pp. 38, 40).

In her book And They Call It Help – The Psychiatric Policing of America’s Children, published in 1993, Louise Armstrong laments “the 65 percent of kids in private, for-profit psych hospitals who simply do not need to be there but are given severe-sounding labels nonetheless” (Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., p. 167 – italics in original).

There’s lots more. IME, most were not even unusually “troublesome”. But their often well-meaning parents were convinced that being locked up would help them. (That’s besides the way smaller proportion who were already behaving abusively.) Often they could not get the kids out again before the insurance ran out; my parents, who were already under heavy medical debt, got threatened with having to pay the whole bill themselves, and did not press further. In other cases with parents who did press the matter, the hospitals just would not release them, totally illegally. Looking for references on unlawful imprisonment from that time period, I found not much on that (again, ancient history by standards these days), but one case, right off the bat, involving an adult from 2009. Other corporations have gotten exposed before over this stuff, but some are still doing it if they think they can get away with it.

The place I was taken to had an interesting M.O., which I doubt was that unusual. Drag a terrified, crying 13-year-old in there in the middle of the night. (No bounty hunters/uniformed private security needed, as in incidents described in the paper above; my parents didn’t know what to do, and were convinced that it was the only right thing to “save me from the enemy: myself”.) Go off on this big faux-concerned spiel on how it was really in my best interest to voluntarily sign myself into the hospital, and not involve the police and the courts. That it would be better for everyone concerned, I would not end up with a juvenile record, and I would probably be able to get out earlier by showing cooperation going in.*** It was a series of not-so-veiled threats, aimed at both frightened parents and even more frightened kids, who mostly did not know their rights or how the system actually worked. Under a lot of coercion there, and guilting from my parents, I finally signed the paper. My guess? They did not want whatever shoddy level of oversight would come from involving the legal system. And they wanted to be able to keep people they couldn’t convince the courts were a threat to anyone. If you’ve signed in “voluntarily”, you have fewer rights, and no time limits on how long they can keep you other than those provided by the insurance coverage. (Again, however poorly enforced these rights may be.)

It was telling that I got led through several sets of locked doors to the cafeteria for breakfast the next morning, and what were the first things my fellow inmates had to say upon meeting me? Not even “What’s your name?”, but “Who’s your doctor, and what kind of insurance do you have?” The immediate verdict there: “Oh shit, Dr. D! And Blue Cross. You’ll be here a month, if they don’t let you out for one day and then readmit you. You can try playing the game, but I bet you can’t get out sooner anyway. That sucks.” And, yeah, they were right, which was just as well in a way, since I don’t know if I am even capable now of playing the kind of game they want you to play. And I even got threatened with the “play Blue Cross’s policy terms to lock me up for another month” (as many times as needed!) thing if I did not do exactly as I was told “for my own good”. Good old Dr. D tried hard to convince my parents to do it right away (hmm, might the documented history of kickbacks have anything to do with this?!), but he was such an obvious asshole that they did not.

The pneumonia that only got treated after I left (when I was already starting to recover from it, but it was confirmed as “I’m surprised you can even walk” pneumonia at that point), and the “leave me for two weeks with broken glasses and me blind as a bat, because they could, then grudgingly give a two-hour leave to replace them only after my parents threatened again to pull me out AMA” incidents probably had something to do with this. (Thank goodness for the one-hour glasses places still readily available then…) They did, however, threaten me with it frequently for a while if I did not do exactly what they said “for my own good”. Grumbling about not wanting to go to see one particular therapist was enough to earn the threat.  So was offering much in the way of “crazy” argument over anything. I will add, explicitly, that they knew very well that I had been left at risk of dying from untreated pneumonia, and that I was not the only one on the unit coughing my head off–my parents visited multiple times, and knew I was very, very sick, and made enough fuss that I started getting one dose of Robitussin a day to be able to say they were treating it–and that staff spitefully denied me my freaking glasses, and they knew that staff was totally inappropriately scapegoating kids. And they still threatened to send me back to that place. Yes, I still find it hard to believe. And I was hardly the only one in that exact same situation. And, indeed, I only mention the incidents that would sound obviously wrong to someone who has never been confined in this kind of “control, control, control” environment, which is emotionally abusive from the get-go.

(On the plus side, I might add that a few doses of cough syrup was the only medication I was given the whole time. My, how things have changed in that respect.)

Setting a pattern that lasted well into my 20s, I might add, and I am still afraid of the “no actual threat of harm required” Mental Health Act here, at the back of my mind. It is probably just as well that the NHS does not want to spend any more money on locking people up than they have to, for some different dynamics involved. (Not that this is never abused, anyway, but…) When medical care gets used as a (not always last resort) threat, you may be doing it wrong. Both the medical care and the parenting, for that matter.

Another bit of anecdata: I did get thrown into the closer not-for-profit psych hospital that was full up the first time around, about a year later and under similar circumstances (meltdown after looming and shouting in my face at the end of a really bad day, because I used the wrong tone of voice or something–on my 15th birthday, no less), and about a year and a half after that onto the adolescent psych unit of a large teaching hospital where we couldn’t even leave the locked unit for meals with the general population. That was under the same doctor in both cases–not Dr. D–and he wasn’t too bad, as these things go. But, the lengths of time locked up, when the institutions in question were not operating explicitly for profit? 8 and 15 days respectively, under the same insurance plan. It was still inappropriate, but the length of stay was still based on my perceived “progress”, and frankly how long it took my mother to calm down enough that sending me home to live with her again seemed reasonable. Nobody came out and said it in so many words, at the time. (Yeah, trying to keep my revived anger and betrayal totally under wraps isn’t working so well.) The treatment in both cases was actually more like, erm, treatment as most mental health professionals know it than a long punitive soul-crushing blame session.

I have very little doubt that the main reason I never got locked up again after I was 16 was that my parents both lost their jobs and “good” insurance. But, I still got threatened with the nearest state hospital multiple times, until one therapist I was coerced into seeing just told my mom flat-out that, if she was really concerned about my wellbeing, she would do better to stage a 24/7 suicide watch personally than to have me in an institution operated by the Commonwealth of Virginia. She knew full well that I was not the one who was freaking out, at the time–my mom got worried, and projected it onto me yet again so that I was supposed to be suicidal–still, I can’t say she was wrong in that advice, and I could have kissed her when that stopped the threats. They were under federal investigation at the time for system-wide abuse and neglect leading to multiple deaths which actually got some publicity. Still, I was in my early 20s, and people were having this kind of conversation in front of me, and nobody was suggesting openly that my mother had no right to decide whether I should get locked up. Nor whether locking somebody up against their will when they are already having difficulties is likely to make them less upset, or better able to cope.

That got normalized as the Right Thing To Do for your children. It continues to boggle the mind.

This has turned pretty long, but one final point I wanted to make. My experiences in that first for-profit hellhole probably helped set the focus of my years in the system, to some extent. And that kind of thing is why I have to keep talking about the problem of individualizing and medicalizing problems that are not all with the individual. This is not always to the level of outright scapegoating in a difficult family situation, but sometimes it is. (And inpatient “care” is not required, as the case of my cousin’s son demonstrates.****) And I really do think we have a problem with this kind of thing, on a societal level. There are often reasons that people are depressed, etc., which are easier not to even address.

You see, I ended up having to diagnose myself with depression, because that was what they wanted to hear. Every day, or every time someone new came onto the unit, we had to sit in the lounge and go around like in a 12-step meeting, saying our names and why we were there. (Mea maxima culpa…) I started out telling the truth: I was having problems at home and school. What would a reasonable response to that be? Maybe finding out what those problems were and working with the person to solve or work around them? Not in that case. That was not an acceptable answer, and after a few times staff members actually started asking me if that were really the reason I was there, in front of the whole group. I may be slow on the uptake sometimes, especially when I’m seriously stressed out, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that “depression” was an acceptable answer to anything there.

And let me point out explicitly that if you weren’t depressed going into that kind of situation, it would be a miracle if you didn’t become depressed pretty quickly.

So, I started saying I was depressed, they smiled and congratulated me on my insight, and suddenly I was apparently being treated for depression. (Which, at one point, Dr. D assured me could not possibly be biochemical, since they’d tested for that. Yep.) Only, it was hard to tell the difference. Because, as mentioned before, the main “treatment” given was alternating between telling us what inconsiderate brats we were, to keep hurting other people like we’d been doing–and telling us that we needed to improve our self-esteem (and the tongue-lashings will continue until morale improves!). Again, I wish I were exaggerating. Problems at home or school were problems with us, because that was profitable.

There is no other obvious explanation for that level of reckless disregard. It would have been darkly funny, except for the fact that it has probably screwed a lot of people up to a point that this is hard to recover from, and I really would not be surprised if it had contributed to suicides. I am sure that I came closer to it on multiple occasions than I would have without the kind of “treatment” I ended up receiving. And I did not spend nearly as much time in that kind of damaging environment as some people I knew and know.

After that, the emphasis stayed on my individualized depression (and, before long, possible childhood trauma that could be causing me to be depressed and act, erm, autistic *gasp*), rather than on anything that might be happening right then and there that I might be having trouble coping with. When I did mention bullying as a problem, I got thrown into a social skills group, but at least my family thought it was silly and did not insist I keep going to that. I did have a good therapist or two, who did actually care, but they kept focusing on everything but what was actually going wrong in my life. (And I thought it was safer to let them lead, especially since I was there under threat of imprisonment.) Hint: coerced “help” that doesn’t actually help will often just cause kids to make shit up, out of self-protection. Even ones who hate lying, and are desperately bad at it, will very likely try if they feel desperate enough.  And that really is not helpful to anyone.

Off-label Prozac–recently on the market, and not approved for kids yet–was not far in the future, nor was multiple stints of the kind of cognitive therapy that can make OCD worse (more on that coming up), I apparently turned bipolar (funny how the no-reason mood swings stopped without all the “treatment” and in a non-abusive environment)–and, the rest is history. Going to say it again: actually finding out what kind of help people need is necessary for helping rather than “helping”.

After getting this written, I still hesitate to post it. But, it’s an important subject. We can do better. But pretending this stuff never happened won’t help with that.

* Which was brought on, as so many were at that stage of my life, by my mother looming over me like the Hulk and screaming in my face, physically blocking me from leaving, when I was already overwhelmed. (I watched her honest-to-goodness try to pick fights sometimes with strangers in public, in exactly the same way, trying to provoke them into making a move so she felt justified in hitting them. She never hit me, but I did have reason to be afraid that might happen.) Funny how that works, eh? 😐 Not excusing my flipping out and hitting anyone, but geez, it’s hardly unpredictable. See also: how not to handle meltdowns. Plus, projection, of the “snarls at you that you’ll talk about it when you’ve calmed down and are no longer hysterical”# sort.

** There’s no need to read much into the source of that one. I had trouble finding quick references on the documented kickbacks to school personnel for referring kids, in particular. This is ancient history by now, and it involves mistreating psych patients, which a lot of people don’t even want to think about. (Half the reason I am talking about it now.) See also . After those kinds of experiences, though, I would not blame anyone for turning totally against the institution/premise of psychiatry and possibly clinical psychology.

*** In Virginia, kids can sign themselves in “voluntarily”, though they are careful not to tell you that once you turn 14 you do have a say in what happens to you medically, and can refuse treatments. At not quite 14, I do not know if I could really legally consent to being admitted, given that I did not yet have any legal control over any other aspect of medical care. At least as of 1991, kids in North Carolina were considered legally unable to consent to being imprisoned, even in a medical setting, and it was all involuntary commitment with the (however shitty level of) oversight and right to legal representation involved there. The ugly side of that one was that your parents could sign you in without any pretence of consent, then the legal system got involved. And they had a cute habit of conveniently losing paperwork, etc., even though you were supposed to be entitled to a hearing within a week with a lawyer assigned to you. (Did I know this before I got tricked into a hospital in NC, in an incident that made me lose all trust forever in my mother’s actually looking out for my “best interest” when she was upset? Hmm…) I have no idea how this works elsewhere, not having been pitched into hospitals anywhere else, as a minor or otherwise.

**** More commentary here, but a shorter version:

I have seen this up close with the now about 10 year old son of one of my cousins, who got a pediatric bipolar diagnosis when his IQ tested out at like 185; before that, the school system assumed he was intellectually disabled…That tactic worked with my cousin’s mom, who is raising his kids because he is such an emotional wreck now, and the kids’ maternal grandfather was abusing them so that their mother brought them to Other Grandma’s to live. Multigeneration trauma on both sides of those kids’ family, yeah. 😦

This kid is an early childhood abuse survivor living in an emotionally abusive situation now—with a grandmother who would rather scapegoat him as sick and a problem than admit the situation isn’t good—and yeah, he’s had some outbursts. Before the diagnosis, he was a bright and active kid I honestly saw nothing wrong with. Last time I saw him, at 8 years old, he was on 3 different anticonvulsants and 2 neuroleptics, his probable PTSD was being totally ignored for obvious reasons, and he couldn’t follow a conversation or even have his eyes track properly from all the meds. It made me want to cry, in part because there’s basically nothing I can do to help. Everything the kid does is still treated as a symptom of something I seriously doubt he ever had in the first place.

At least I was in college—and actually having significant problems from the unrecognized autism/LDs/PTSD—before running into a bullshit bipolar diagnosis myself. 😦 I had to work on learning some emotional regulation starting in my late 20s; this poor kid has basically no role models for that. I avoid his grandmother because she’s so unstable with her own PTSD and lack of role models for learning emotional regulation.

He is one of the (not-so-White) kids whose overmedication is being funded by Medicaid, BTW, apparently with the goal of keeping him as quiet as possible even if that means in a stupor. This is the kind of situation I think of automatically with “inappropriately medicated kids”, but my frame of reference seems to be different from some people’s.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2012 7:21 am

    Oh geez. There’s so much I could write about this topic, about stuff we either personally experienced or saw happen to family members. But… awkward to do it in public, because privacy reasons, because there are people in our family who don’t even know that we’re plural and have still done everything possible, when we’re around them, to make the environment around us as institutional as they possibly can without physically locking us up. Do you mind if we PM you, or is there an email you’d prefer us to use or something?

    (Sorry if this comment goes through multiple times. The new unimproved WordPress comment template is still really obscure to us and I’m not totally sure what I’m doing with it here.)

    • urocyon permalink*
      September 17, 2012 5:14 pm

      Sorry your comment got caught in the spam filter, and it took me a while to spot it. (And sorry, in general, that I’ve been crap at dealing with comments lately, for spoons reasons.)

      But, yeah, I should see anything sent to the address this blog is set up with (urocyon_c at gmail), especially knowing to expect something. I would be very interested in your thoughts on this subject. It was hard enough for me to post about it publicly, even this long after the fact and with my mom not around for several years now. I can only imagine that this could be harder to talk about in public if you have certain things going on, and haven’t had to go pretty much no-contact with some relatives. 😦

      • December 31, 2012 5:25 am

        Ack, we finally got around to finishing and sending the letter about our experiences, and got a “permanent delivery error” from gmail, which told us that address didn’t exist. Did your email address change?

      • urocyon permalink*
        December 31, 2012 2:37 pm

        Sorry about that! I managed to get an underscore instead of a period in the address, which should be :/ If you could resend, that would be great.

        Note to self: Better proofreading is a good thing.

  2. September 13, 2012 11:13 pm

    I’m very glad you have written this, as it is something I knew nothing about. I have quite a few friends who have had a terrible deal as kids because of behaviour that was identified as troubling – kids who would later acquire serious psychiatric, learning or ASD diagnoses (and in one case, the diagnosis of a physical illness, the symptoms of which had been considered a great pretense), but who were treated as if they were bad in a way that needed to and could be fixed, and ended up with far more problems than they had to begin with. But bring financial motives into this and wow, what a mess! I only know two people who were ever sent away from home because of this sort of thing.

    I’m so sorry this happened to you. When a child is in distress, the question should be, “Is there any way that life can be made easier for this kid?” which really is the only point of child psychology/ psychiatry and related professions. What other point is there?

  3. October 6, 2012 12:58 am

    Oh my gosh. I’m also sorry this happened to you, but very glad you were able to write about it here, as stories like yours need to be told. I was talking to my mom kind of a long time ago (the exact occasion was that we were discussion the Lisbeth Salander novels) and I mentioned that abusive psychiatric incarceration (like what happens to Lisbeth in the books) is actually a big problem in real life, too, and she didn’t believe it. It didn’t jibe with her experience having worked as a nurse in a psychiatric ward. I had read Amanda’s writing about her time in various institutions, plus a few other autistic/otherwise non-neurotypical writers’, and I had a friend who worked in a group home for developmentally disabled adults who fought a depressingly uphill battle trying to get her residents adequate care, and protect them from the sketchier staff members (who were seldom fired), but couldn’t give any context about how often it happens, and couldn’t explain how institutional power dynamics work to create an environment where it’s especially likely that abuse and neglect would happen.

    I don’t know if things got better for my generation (I’m a bit younger than you — in 1989 I was five years old); I certainly didn’t get the impression that my grumpiness, standoffishness, love of baggy black clothes, punk rock and metal were going to get me locked up. I had lots and lots of non-mainstream friends, too, some actually mentally ill and most not. I don’t remember any of them struggling with parents/psych professionals, with one possible exception. But then I had also been diagnosed with autism early, and been designated special-ed, and given a lot more leeway for odd classroom behavior than most students, all through elementary school. I was 100% mainstreamed by high school, though, so I doubt these lower standards for conformity were still in play by then.

    My generation is the one everyone complains about being drugged up to the gills, though, so maybe things got worse in that way, if indeed they ever did get better on the forced-institutionalization front.

    (Also: Have you ever read Phyllis Chesler’s book Women and Madness? It was written in 1972, and it includes a collection of stories from interviews she had with a bunch of women who’d been committed to psychiatric institutions, plus an exploration of the extent to which psychiatric imprisonment is used to coerce properly compliant, feminine behavior from women. Some of the married women’s stories, about their husbands’ total complicity in locking them up against their will, are absolutely chilling. You might find the book lacking in racial and class analysis, though, even though she does some of both — you’d probably develop them a lot further than she does if you were writing the book! She’s also disappointingly silent on women with developmental disabilities — I’m sure most of the dynamics she identifies working against women with mental illnesses are just as much in play for these women, and I’d be interested in seeing a comparison/contrast of how things are for both of those marginalized classes of women.)


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