How to Complain: Mental Hygiene Legal Service

So Charles Bartlett had been locked up for thirty-two years when the Mental Hygiene Legal Service (MHLS) found him and asked if he wanted out.  He replied, “I’ve been waiting a long time for you,” and then it took the MHLS nine months to get Bartlett sprung.  He was not receiving any treatment of any kind for any supposed mental illness, nevertheless, the hospital hung on to him.  Doctors started seeing Mr. Bartlett; drugs were prescribed.  Instead of saying, “Yeah, I guess he’s good to go,” the hospital started seeing illness where they hadn’t seen any for decades.  I repeat:  A psychiatric hospital is not a benevolent institution that cares about its patients.  It is a self-serving institution that has its own agenda.

During the decades that I was taking drugs and repeatedly hospitalized, the only thing I ever saw the Mental Hygiene Legal Service do was accompany inpatients to retention hearings, i.e., go to court with people who wanted to get out of the hospital.  The patients always seemed to come back to their incarceration.  (In Canada, the system always refers to hospitalized psychiatric patients as “inmates.”)

Several times I reached out to the Syracuse office of the MHLS regarding things that had happened when I was in the hospital.  I was repeatedly told that they only work with people who actually are in the hospital.  After you’re discharged it’s too late to get help from MHLS to redress wrongs.  My recollection is that an MHLS attorney stops by to visit you within twenty-four hours of your admission, which is a time when you are busy being processed.  You’re getting a lot of positive attention, and you’re tremendously relieved to be out of your own home and the troubles residing therein, so you feel no need of legal representation.  The trouble comes later.

In “St. Joseph’s:  Hate Crimes, Violence and Ignorance” I wrote about Cheyenne:  “Cheyenne is a woman of color who stands about six feet tall. Her heritage is so mixed that she is a mini-United Nations all by herself. She is legally blind.

“One morning, she is in the day room during breakfast, probably with more than one staff member on duty passing out breakfast trays. Another patient, Doug, throws a cup of coffee on her and calls her a nigger.

“Doug is removed, and Cheyenne is angry. The staff is not making any response that Cheyenne considers adequate—assault and harassment of a blind woman, or a hate crime?—so she goes to the pay phone and calls the police to report that she has been attacked. Cheyenne calls out to a nurse in the nursing station that the police officer on the phone wants to talk to her. The nurse refuses, saying she won’t talk on the patient phone.

“Cheyenne receives no satisfaction from the nursing staff about her complaints regarding her lack of safety. She walks the halls, peering out through blind eyes, trying to identify her assailant, sometimes asking me to dial the phone for her. She says that she will file a police complaint when she is discharged, as she cannot do when she is an inpatient.

“The violation of a mental patient’s civil rights is not addressed. Cheyenne cannot read the poster on the wall, and has never heard of the Mental Hygiene Legal Service. The staff does not tell her about it. They act as if they are the final arbiters of justice; if it does not suit their convenience to be challenged, then they do not tell patients about their rights.”

The police will not take a complaint from a person on inpatient psychiatry; the staff will not inform the patient about MHLS—“MHLS provides advice and representation regarding standards of care and other matters affecting the civil liberties . . .”—and MHLS has not established itself as a significant presence.  Not to mention that drugged patients are usually compliant and don’t try to claim their rights under the law.

In my last hospitalization at Community General Hospital, I was not drugged and I clearly saw what was going on.  One of the things going on was that Community General would not let patients have free and unfettered use of the telephone.  NYS Office of Mental Health regulations require that patients be allowed to use the phone; they say inpatients have the right to “communicate freely with people inside or outside the psychiatric center.”  You cannot get telephone service in your room, as you can on any medical unit in the hospital, nevertheless, there are pay phones provided in public areas.  Except at Community General.

At Community, you had to sign up if you wanted to use the phone then, about twice a day, the phone would be brought into the Community Room where a staff person would sit and listen to your phone call, which would be restricted to about five minutes.  You thought you were in the hospital but it turned out you were in prison—although I think prison provides more liberal phone access.  And this was done because the inpatient staff felt like it.  No good reason, other than the staff mentality of controlling everything and everybody that they can.  Makes them feel powerful to deny a parent’s request to call his kids at bedtime to say goodnight to them.  Makes the patient feel depressed, which is what he’s in the hospital to be treated for.  You see how hospitalization makes you crazy?

So I sent for the Mental Hygiene Legal Service, which arrived in the form of attorney Michael Hungerford, who I think is the director of the Syracuse office.  Mike and I were members of the same church for a couple decades.  I told him about the problem of the staff locking up the telephone and he replied, “Are they still doing it?”  He knew, and never followed up.

At my insistence, he followed up with administration again and the phone was left out in the dayroom for people to use—except during supper when one autocratic nurse decided she had the right to unplug it.  Try to picture what would happen in her home if her husband unplugged the phone during dinner.


About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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1 Response to How to Complain: Mental Hygiene Legal Service

  1. Sebestyen says:

    Usually I don’t learn article on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very forced me to take a look at and do it!

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