Forced Treatment in Vermont

Forced Treatment: Symptom or Cure?

The Independent, Waterbury VT: April / May 1998 • Page 8

In April, after painful debate, the Vermont House voted in favor of S103, a bill that authorizes use of forced treatment of people with psychiatric disabilities in community settings. A similar bill was approved by the Senate last year. The evening before the first vote I had spoken to someone whose brother-in-law had experienced forced treatment. My friend said "While he's on the drugs, we lose him. When he's himself, he may make some people uncomfortable, but he would never hurt anyone." I thought of a friend of mine. When I first met her she was heavily medicated. I never knew her wit, will, and keen and sometimes sharp gifts with the English language until she refused medication and came alive. Now off drugs she is one of the opponents of forced treatment.

After the vote, I heard Paul Poirier quoted on Vermont Public Radio. He spoke against passage of S.103, saying "Our vote on this bill is a moral test of government. The sick and the handicapped look to us for protection. For us to sit back and say, 'It's only a handful who will be force medicated'...Well, how many will it be tomorrow?" Later, a community mental health worker I happened to see said to me, "The state listens to the fears they hear in the community. The question, what do we do about someone who is a danger to himself or others, is a hard question and a real concern. It shouldn't be ignored. But there are other solutions that could be looked for."

There has been eloquent testimony for and against the use of psychiatric medications. It is important to hear all experiences, and to recognize that not all opponents of S.103 reject psychiatric medication. What people for and against medication are trying to stop is forced treatment and the related loss of human rights protections for people labeled mentally ill. As Eleanor Newton said in her testimony, "Probably nothing I can say would be new or add anything to the discussion of forced treatment for mental patients. But bear with me, as one with direct experience with a mental system as 'out of control' as it claims its 'clients' to be. Each case, each person is an individual. But I have been seriously mistreated by the system, and have witnessed the mistreatment of others...This mistreatment would not have occurred, or would have been less likely, if we 'mental patients' had more rights we could, indeed, protect."

Forced medication changes individual behavior. It does not create a system of care that respects individual rights. Many people with personal experience being forced medicated say it does not result in healing. I have seen people dealing with the negative long term side effects of psychiatric medicines. These effects include damage to the nervous system that cause involuntary movements, tremors. I have physical disabilities myself. A birth injury caused my condition; mental health treatments endorsed by our society caused theirs. I have also chosen to take chemotherapy to fight cancer. I knew that some day these chemicals that helped keep me alive may cause other cancers in my body. The difference between my experience and theirs looms large in our culture. For me, the risk and the choice was something I was allowed to make for myself. For them, it was a choice deferred. Frankly, the fact that we allow our society to forcibly insert chemicals with long term effects on both the brain and the body into citizens raises real questions about the role of the state in the life of individuals.

Morgan Brown said to me recently, "There are so many who have been working hard behind the scenes (to fight S.103). I take their words with me into the battle. This is not easy work. Because I know what is at stake, it makes the work painful. We may loose. S.103 may pass. But the Department should not think we are going away. We're not going away. The debate is not over." When these fellow citizens come again to fight for their human rights, we should be there beside them.\

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