First National Conference on Mental Health Aspects of People Affected by Family Separation
Held at Liverpool Hospital Liverpool NSW
YOUTH DETENTION AND MENTAL HEALTH
Beth Wilson–Szoredi is a Historical Abuse Network
Leadership Team Member and a Former Member of Forde Monitoring Committee.
The author will focus on youth detention - with particular emphasis on Wilson Youth Detention Centre (formerly Wilson Youth Hospital). Her areas of interest include:
gender issues surrounding mental illness and incarceration "mad/bad" and
impact of the medical model e.g. ongoing impact of intelligence testing
and incorrect interpretation of those results
overdoses related to addiction and "self-medication" as a direct follow
on of being medicated in institution.
high rates of suicide
"sabotage" of the entire person, where one could claim nothing as their
ongoing impact of being stereotyped as "detention"
use of medication as punishment
other "gender-specific" medical testing
DETENTION AND MENTAL HEALTH
This paper is a reflection of my own personal experience and my relationships with
my peers who had similar experiences.
In 1976 I entered a unique detention centre in Queensland
that doubled as a corrective institution and a mental heath facility. It was called Wilson Youth Hospital. This facility
catered for both genders. There was a “boy’s side” and a “girls
The entry point to the facility was called reception. Upon arrival each individual
was stripped searched in the full sense of the term, made to take a shower and had delousing solution applied to their hair. You were then issued with a shapeless uniform, some underwear and sandshoes with no
laces or thongs.
The institutional programming had begun. Activities were playing cards, knitting and
croqueting with 20 mins allocated for fresh air a day in a fenced courtyard. The design of the building had very little open
space and was not built with natural light aspects and had no view.
The majority of the children admitted to this institution were status offenders. In
other words non-offenders were placed with offenders, and this was especially true for young women. I discovered an alarming percentage of the young women were actually victims of incest. Many as in my case came from abusive family backgrounds and were under care and protection of the state
and due to a lack of accommodation were locked up.
The environment was a cross between a mental health unit and a jail.
After the reception process one was admitted to the remand section, (keep in mind
most of us were non-offenders). The remand section consisted of a room with four cells on each side and a bathroom. Down the hall behind more locked doors was an area called “treatment” that had five cells on
each side. In between these areas was the punishment section. This was consisted
of a room with absolutely nothing in it. It was surrounded with unbreakable glass so that staff member could view and make
notes every five minutes. This was called “open tantrum”. Behind
this were three cells that held nothing but a mattress. This was “closed tantrum” and this was used for those
who had broken the rules or had been seen to be acting out etc. Most were dragged
in there after being sedated.
There was 6 medication queues a day, where medications like Melleril, Largactal and
Tryptonal were handed out. There were psychiatrists on staff and it was mandatory
to go through their mental health assessment. This included EEG’s and various
intelligence tests etc.
Included in the assessment process was an enforced gynaecological examination, including
an internal involving a speculum. Often this involved up to 4 screws called “training
officers” to pin the young women in a position common for an internal examination.
As many were virgins and knew this procedure was not only humiliating but unnecessary many fought and sustained vaginal
cuts and injuries as well as broken hymens.
Young women were particularly targeted in relation to their sexuality. I’ve never known any boys to be locked up for being in moral danger, yet I’ve known dozens
of girls who have had that charge levelled against them. If the Department didn’t
like the place in which you lived or the person you were sharing with, if the Department deemed you as being promiscuous and
in some cases if parents objected to their daughters boyfriend or even friends the girls were formally charged with being
in moral danger. It was an outrageous and insulting charge that was gender specific.
Few of my peers who were incarcerated in the late seventies remain.
Some did not make it out of their teens. Many died in their twenties,
some before my eyes. Some decided it was all too hard and took their own lives. Many more however fell into the addiction trap - self-medicating so to speak. I strongly believe there is a direct correlation between the relentless medicating
of inmates at Wilson Youth Hospital and the self- medicating that people mimicked that would eventually end their lives. The drug scene is a high-risk way of life so not surprisingly some of our peers were murdered.
Some of the lessons that were learnt through our experience are
- You don’t mix non-offenders
with offenders of any kind, much less young disturbed offenders who have committed violent crimes such as murder.
- You do not lock up and punish the
victims of sexual assault and other abuse, you help and support them! It’s
not that revolutionary a concept, is it?
- You do not take a healthy bunch of
kids, attempt to treat them with a flawed mental health model that promotes the view that there are pills or injections that
can cure all your problem. That is the perfect recipe for addiction.
- You don’t violate people’s
bodies under the guise of medical practice and destroy people’s ability to trust in accessing health care. Why would they deliver themselves to a medical system that systemically abused them?
The health care needs of those of us who remain as survivors of this infamous institution
are overwhelming. The majority of our people suffer from varying degrees of mental
illness. Some have been given a label; some have not. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder appears to be one thing we all have in common. Depression and anxiety related illness such as panic attacks and sleep disorders are common as are some
phobic disorders. Poor anger management skills and violent outbursts are a feature
of the social and emotional problems experienced by our people. The men especially
have largely been unable to address the issues relating to their anger and this is often displayed in their relationships. Hence a high incidence of domestic violence.
The men I have known refused to seek help because their distrust is so profound they would rather loose a partner and
children they love.
The general health status of the Wilson survivors is also frightening. We have some cases of HIV, many are Hep C positive. Those
issues coupled with long-term drug and/or alcohol abuse has in some cases created irreparable damage. With the passage of time as many of us have hit our forties and beyond and as the general health of our
people diminishes which in turn intensifies the feelings of anxiety, I can’t help but feel angry. I’m angry that this group of people who lost their childhood to a sick healthcare system are aging
and fading fast.
These same people were denied a future by both being profoundly mistreated thereby
affecting their ability to understand process and be involved in the wider community once released. They were also denied an education, which should be the birth rite of all.
I’m furious that some of my Wilson sisters have never had another pap smear
after their childhood experience. Given the damage that has been done by professionals, medical professionals: medical practitioners,
psychiatrists, counsellors, social workers, nurses, gynaecologists and “training officers”, I think the best we
can hope for is peer support through our network (HAN) and that involves A LOT of peer medical advocacy. It’s what people feel safer with in terms of seeking out trusted peers, getting information about
GP’s that are sympathetic and arranging for a peer advocate to support them through the doctor patient process.
And so where to from here? We have all become aware of the litany of abuse perpetrated by various bodies and individuals. Largely this has been shared by those of us who have experienced the trauma. As a society our responsibility now kicks in. Having said
we have heard of abuse and are disgusted by it is not enough. A response is required
from each and every one of us.