Michael has long been able to manage his own condition, and his own community had no idea that he was classified as mentally ill. It was only after a call by his family to the police out of concern for his wellbeing that he came to the attention of the mental health system. Although they may have believed that they were acting in his best interests, by doing so Michael’s independence and right to make decisions regarding his own wellbeing have been stripped away.
On two separate occasions, quite recently, police arrested Michael for being a “danger to his reputation”. They came to the villa where he is living, handcuffed him and in dragging him out in front of neighbours, using such force that Michael suffered head wounds requiring four staples to close the wound when he was treated at Westmead Hospital. On the second occasion in 2012 they did so in front of a coffee shop he frequents, where neighbours, friends and acquaintances witnessed him being handcuffed and thrown in the back of a police paddy wagon. Until this embarrassment, none of those around him were aware of any mental health issues.
This criminalisation of those who are mentally ill should not be tolerated. The stigma that surrounds mentally ill people has justified abuse of authority and the mistreatment of those who should be supported and protected. Furthermore, regardless of whatever the allegations are or who makes them, the burden of proof lies on Michael to disprove accusations of mental instability. His case throws up in the contradiction of care and coercion.
COMMUNITY TREATMENT ORDER (CTO)
The broad powers of the CTO take away his right to decide what treatment he wants, as well as making his liberty conditional on compliance with the terms of the CTO (s 57). In addition, a mental health team is able to medicate Michael without his consent (s 57). The power vested in mental health staff to forcibly remove Michael from the community for a breach of the CTO, transport him to a declared mental health facility (s 58) and keep him there against his will (s 61) is alarming. Perhaps most disturbing, though, is the ability of the police to intervene in Michael’s life despite the absence of any criminality.
Any resistance displayed by Michael to the terms of the CTO or the treatment forced upon him is seen as a lack of capacity or insight into what is in his best interests. Such objections are taken as confirmation of his diagnosis and act to reinforce the initial justification for the use of force. The CTO essentially takes away Michael’s ability to make his own decisions regarding his treatment and his life while a failure to comply results in his liberty being taken away.
Outraged at his brutalisation at the hands of the mental health authorities and the systemic stripping away of his fundamental human rights, Michael is prepared to talk about his experiences in order to raise awareness of the problems he has encountered in the mental health system. After years of indignity, Michaels’ frustration finally came to a head in November 2013 when his CTO was again renewed, despite the presentation of an advanced directive that had been put together to provide Michael with a community-based, supportive and therapeutic alternative to the strict and overly intrusive CTO.
He is able to clearly and articulately state his resistance to the abuses of power he has experienced. But even this choice could not be made without a battle. Due to the structure of the Mental Health Act, Michael was required to ask the Mental Health Review Tribunal for consent to use his own name in discussing his experiences – a fundamental right that is taken away under the legislation (s 68). The blanket prohibition imposed by the Act is supposedly in place for the protection of the patient who is assumed to be incapable of fully comprehending the damage they may cause themselves by associating their name with a mental illness in the public sphere. In reality, however, this prohibition, which also applies to Tribunal members, functions to reduce the accountability and transparency of the MHRT’s proceedings (see Right to Identity – s 162 Application for more information).
It is this lack of accountability and transparency that Michael is most passionate about exposing and hopefully reforming. He and Justice Action feel that unless there is a significant change in this area, people who are already at a social and often financial disadvantage will continue to have their rights and autonomy taken away from them with little avenue for effective recourse. People who are diagnosed with a mental illness require support and deserve to have their dignity maintained. Paternalistic, interventionist and overbearing systems are more likely to damage their mental state than help to nurture or repair it.
RIGHT TO IDENTITY
The Mental Health Act 2007 (NSW) s 162 establishes a blanket prohibition on publishing or broadcasting the names of people participating or involved in any way in hearings before the Mental Health Review Tribunal (MHRT), allegedly for the protection of the person to whom the proceedings relate, in this case Michael.
Michael was unhappy with previous decisions of the Tribunal including its November 2013 decision to place him under a Community Treatment Order, sought permission to publicly criticise the decision on the Justice Action website and elsewhere. Part of the contention in allowing Michael to use his name was the determination of a consultant psychiatrist that he could not appreciate the adverse effects on his reputation and future employment prospects of publicising his name. However, Michael successfully argued that not allowing him to publish his name would have a negative impact on his mental health. The Tribunal agreed stating that any negative impact to his reputation would be outweighed by the impact of not allowing him to publish.
Michael sought to publish his name in order to de-stigmatise mental illness, increase public support and to regain his basic civil liberties as recognised in the United Nations Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and for the Improvement of Mental Health Care (1991). These include treating people with a mental illness with humanity and respect for their dignity (principle 1), the right to be treated in the least restrictive environment and with the least restrictive or intrusive treatment appropriate with a view towards preserving and enhancing personal autonomy (principle 9) and a prohibition on treatment without consent, except in very limited circumstances (principle 11).
On 15 January 2014 in the MHRT, Michael won the right to publish and broadcast his own name in relation to two hearings of which he was the subject.
See the detailed report here.