How to Complain: Writing the Complaint


For starters, Ms R, your written message to me was just fine.  You don’t have to be “a very good writer” to file a written complaint.  You are not in high school and the English teacher is not going to grade this.  What matters is that you provide clear information.  When writing your complaint, imagine you are writing to me.  Better yet, picture yourself talking to your best friend about what happened and then just write down the words you’d use to tell her.  This gets you past your own mental block about writing.

In the first paragraph, state your name, age, address, phone number and email address.  If your complaint is on behalf of someone else then give the same information for that person and state your relationship.  “I am Betty Jones, aged 47.  I live at —.  I am filing a complaint on behalf of my daughter, Belinda Smith, aged 27, who lives at —.”  Include the county of your residence because in some cases you have to establish a geographical right to complain.

In the second paragraph, give a very brief statement of what you are complaining about—just the headlines, not the details.  “My daughter was threatened by another patient and the staff provided no protection.  When I tried to alert the staff to my daughter’s medical illnesses, they refused to listen.  The doctor put my daughter on such strong drugs that all she could do was sleep.  She was made to sleep on a mattress on the floor.”

In the third and following paragraphs, get specific about each bad thing that happened.  Either start with the single most horrendous thing that happened and then do short paragraphs, in descending order of importance, about every other thing, or else tell your story chronologically.  Report it as “where, when, who and what.”  “I was admitted to the CPEP located at [address] on July 14 at around 7:15 p.m.  I sat in the waiting area until 2:30 a.m.  My requests for food or drink were refused.  I was locked in the waiting area and most of the time there was no staff person present.  There was no telephone available for me to call my husband.”

Report what incidents took place.  Name the people who did the hurtful things, and any witnesses who might also have seen what happened.  If you don’t know the staff person’s name, give their apparent job, some physical description, and the time (so investigators can narrow down what shift the person was working).  “A big, middle-aged woman who was passing medications on the day shift” or “Around 4:30 p.m. an African-American man who said he was a mental health counselor . . .”

You don’t want to say too much because that drowns the reader in irrelevant details, but you do want to report all the important points.  You will only get one shot at this.  When I first started filing complaints, I thought that if I reported a problem then someone would call or visit to interview me and get the whole story.  That never happened.  The people who investigate will do so based on what you write, so be sure you report all the facts.

Report the facts:  do not report your feelings.  Investigators do not care about your feelings, and if you come across as too needy, whining, nit-picking, or whatever, then they will simply ignore you.  You and I both know that you have been hurt emotionally and that matters.  This is the freaking mental health system, for God’s sake, and your feelings should matter more than anything else—but they don’t matter to administrators.  That’s not right, but it is the way it is. 

What “the system” wants is concrete, objective facts about bad behavior.  “I have diabetes and celiac disease but all they would give me to eat were sandwiches and fruit.  My diet plan was on file with the hospital Dietary Department but when I told the CPEP day nurse, she said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about that.’  CPEP, by denying me a medically necessary diet, was actively making me sick.”  Tell what happened then, in the last sentence, sum up what they did wrong.

After you’ve told your story then you can write a paragraph about your pain; let loose and tell them how badly you’ve been hurt.  “I was terribly frightened.  After I got home, I couldn’t sleep for nights because I was so upset.  It was so traumatic that now I am having trouble connecting with any kind of therapist.  In my line of work I am accustomed to being treated with respect; at CPEP, I was humiliated, degraded and dehumanized.”

In the final paragraph, tell them what you want:  “This CPEP should be investigated and reformed.  The director should be fired.  I want the nurse transferred away from working with people who are mentally ill.  The psychiatrist should be sent back for retraining.”  Ask for a written apology from the offending staff person.  Then tell them that you would like a follow-up confirmation in two weeks, and give the date.

Then make copies of your complaint and send them to the person’s boss, the boss’s boss, and the licensing agency.  If you know any newspaper or television reporters, sent them a copy.  Send a copy to the Letters to the Editor.  When I file a complaint, I post it on-line on my blog.  Think of it as a good time to do carpet-bombing.

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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
This entry was posted in Community General Hospital, CPEP, doctor, drugs, Hutchings Psychiatric Center, Inpatient psychiatry, mental illness, Mental Patients Liberation Alliance, NYS Office of Mental Health, patient, physician, psychiatric patient, psychiatrist, psychiatry, St. Joseph's Hospital, Upstate Medical Center and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How to Complain: Writing the Complaint

  1. telula2 says:

    Anne,
    I was wondering if you think there is a time limit on making complaints. For example if I had a really bad experience last year and really didn’t think there was anything I could do about it, is it too late to file a complaint? what is your opinion?

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