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NAMI Greater Boston CAN

A grassroots organization primarily consisting of mental health consumers and is an affiliate of NAMI-MASS (National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts). [pdf flier]


Mental Health Wards Restrict Access to Email

SPECIAL MENTION 2- Incommunicado: Mental Health Wards Restrict Access to Email (Spare Change News, USA)

Paul Rice
February 5, 2007

People living in certain mental health facilities in Massachusetts are not being afforded access to email, cutting them off from an important conduit of communication with the outside world.

The “Five Fundamental Rights Act,” passed in 1997, was a piece of legislation that guaranteed certain, mostly inalienable rights to inpatients at mental health facilities. These rights include the right to “sealed, unopened, uncensored mail,” as well as postage and stationary, the right to visitors of “your own choosing daily and in private, at reasonable times,” and the right to “reasonable access” to a telephone in order to make and receive confidential calls, and more.

Since the rights were enacted before the Internet was widely accessible, there is no mention of access to what has become the world’s greatest source for information and knowledge, not to mention the cheapest and fastest communication device ever fashioned: email.

Email has become analogous to traditional pen and paper writing, due to ease of use and increasing access to computers. Practically all communication in businesses operates around email, with only more formal or legal documents being held over to the mail system. Anyone who owns or borrows a computer can make a free account through a service such as Yahoo or Gmail. In 1999, researchers determined that 263 million people had an email inbox. Eight years later, with the growth of affordable high-speed connections and reduced price computers with internet access, it is conceivable that the number is nearing one billion.

But when a person enters a mental health facility, although they might have access to written letters and the telephone, administrators are not required to allow access to email and the Internet.

“It’s a huge issue to be cut off from the outside world – being bored out of your mind is not therapeutic,” says Cathy Levin, editor of the Voices for CHANGE Newsletter, a publication from MPOWER, a local mental health advocacy group staffed mainly by current and former psychiatric patients.

“When I was in the hospital, I called my father every night before I went to bed,” she recalls. “It was enormously helpful to feel loved, because the staff doesn’t love you.”

Levin believes that providing access to email should be a right taken as seriously as the telephone or receiving letters.

“This way, you can keep all your balls in play while you’re away.”

One hospital where there is no access to email is the Cahill ward at Cambridge City Hospital. Spare Change News editorial assistant Amanda Morley recently spent a few months at Cahill and found the lack of access to be a point of huge stress. She tells SCN that email would have made her time there much easier.

“It would give me a little sense of companionship, to get messages from people and not feel so alone,” she says. “It boosts your energy and your mood when you get messages from people.”

Morley has four or five close friends whom she only communicates with via email. “Even just a small message really makes a difference.”

As of press time, administrators at Cambridge City Hospital had not returned requests for comment on the issue.

Whether or not advocates inserted language into the “Five Fundamental Rights” about email, an issue may remain with the enforcement of those rights.

“People in psychiatric hospitals have very few rights at all and those rights can be taken away by a staff member instantly,” says Howard D. Trachtman, executive director of the Boston Resource Center at Boston Medical, a peer-to-peer meeting place for people dealing with mental illness issues.

Trachtman is concerned about hospitals’ lack of emphasis on the rights for their patients. “We know anecdotally that they’re very often flouted,” he tells SCN. “They’re not enforceable, and that’s what we’re trying to remedy.”

Jonathan Dosick is another patient advocate who is working on changing the legal text of the Rights to include more actual enforcement at the hospital level. The bill has been introduced to the legislature multiple times over the last few years, failing each time. Advocates are trying again this year, with a new draft.

“Basically, it provides for an appeal process for violations of the Five Fundamental Rights, something that doesn't happen now – generally, DMH complaints filed tend to disappear, or are ‘investigated’ by hospitals,” Dosick writes, in an email to SCN. “However, those at hospitals who are designated as ‘Human Rights Officers’ are, besides employees of the facility, also Risk Managers.”

With a lack of patient advocates (who aren’t employed by the hospital), even if the rights were changed to include email, there would remain no guarantee that the rights would be observed – something which, for people like Amanda Morley, would make all the difference in improving her mental stability.

“Sometimes when I’m walking down the street and there’s a guy panhandling and he tells me to smile, that really helps,” Morley says. “Someone saying something to you is heartwarming. It’s very lonely here and it’s scary because there are 27 people here and I don’t know anyone.” At the new facility she’s lodged at, they recently forbid her from taking her stuffed animals out of her room.

“You may only be in hospital for three days, but in that time you can lose your friends and your job,” says Cathy Levin. “It’s not unlike going into prison and having someone lock the door.”

The difference being that most prison inmates have access to email these days.

By Paul Rice

Reprinted from Spare Change News

© Street News Service: www.street-papers.org