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Australia’s Cells of Horror

Neglect and Abuse in Mental Health System Caught on Camera

Drugged, naked, left covered in feces and locked in a seclusion room for more than five hours without food or water. Repeatedly falling and hurting yourself in a dark cell while your distress and cries for help are ignored.

Miriam Merten shown on CCTV footage from a government hospital in New South Wales, Australia, 2014. © Supplied

Nobody should be treated this way. But this is how Miriam Merten spent her final hours in the mental health unit of a government hospital in New South Wales, Australia, in 2014. 

Disturbing CCTV footage released by her daughter last week shows the 46-year-old Merten fell over 20 times in her cell, but no nurse came to her aid. When the cell door is finally opened the next morning, a disheveled Merten, covered in blood and feces, staggers through the corridors naked. Minutes later, Merten collapses to the floor and dies the next day of brain injuries.

The abuse came to light during an inquest. Until recently, Merten’s daughter did not even know the real cause of her mother’s death and found out purely by chance from a journalist. This raises the question, how many other Miriam Mertens are suffering in silence?

While many Australians were shocked by the footage, the use of isolation rooms remains common in the mental health system of Australia and other countries.

Isolation cells are used in psychiatric hospitals and prisons where people with psychosocial disabilities, or mental health conditions, are so grossly overrepresented that these institutions act as de facto mental health facilities. Our research in prisons in Western Australia and Queensland found that people with psychosocial disabilities or at risk of self-harm were often locked up in specially designed isolation cells with little or no furniture, were forced to wear a tear-proof hospital gown, and were kept under surveillance with limited human contact and limited or no access to any leisure activities. They are kept in these cells anywhere from a few hours to weeks. While the intent may be to keep the person safe, isolation rooms often make a person’s mental state even worse. Instead of a last resort, isolation rooms were commonly used in at least half of the psychiatric hospitals and prisons visited by Human Rights Watch in Australia.

An independent review has been ordered into Merten’s death, which would look into all aspects of the state’s mental health system, including the use of seclusion rooms.

But that’s not enough. The Australian government should ensure independent and regular monitoring of mental health settings, including in prisons. It should order an independent and impartial investigation of restrictive practices used in the mental health system. Let’s hope Miriam Merten’s needless death can be the catalyst for needed change.

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