Inspired by IMHA to change the system – Angela’s story
Angela (not her real name) is a single mum in her 40s who lives in Melbourne’s south-east. In January Angela was struggling emotionally, as she ended a tumultuous and destabilising relationship. Her ex-partner, who had previously been violent to her was threatening and stalking her. One day she told a friend she couldn’t cope anymore and went voluntarily to hospital, where she thought she would be safe.
Angela had never been diagnosed with a mental health condition and was surprised to be made a compulsory patient at the hospital and told she could not leave. ‘I'd never been in the system before and I was just horrified. I mean my next of kin was my 21-year-old daughter and when they sent me to the (psychiatric ward) they didn’t even tell her.’
She found the experience of becoming a compulsory patient extremely distressing and confusing – 'They grabbed me by the ankles and proceeded to restrain me to the bed. They handed me two pills and told me to take them and I said 'what's this and what are they for?' and they said 'you take them' and then they produced two big needles and said 'Look if you don't take them we'll inject you with them.’
On the day she was admitted IMHA Advocate Simon Katterl was giving a presentation to a group of consumers. As she waited to talk to a doctor, she listened in to Simon’s presentation and learned about IMHA’s role and how an advocate could help. At the end of the session she spoke to Simon and got his phone number.
The experience continued to be confusing and disempowering for Angela. ‘I hadn't even received a copy of my order after five days so I didn’t know what was going on just that they were keeping me there and I should do what I was told’. Angela spoke to Simon over the phone and learned that she had the right to have a copy of her order and to have a say in her treatment and recovery.
Angela says the clinical team were unhelpful and dismissive of her concerns ‘… it didn't feel like I had support whatsoever except for IMHA. It was my saving grace. That was the only thing that kept me going, being reassured that I had rights. Because when you're within the system you're told to shut up and do as you're told because if you don't you won't get out and that was my fear, but having Simon and being able to speak to him was reassurance that I was going to be ok.’
Simon says he was pleased to help .‘Working with Angela helped me understand how our service can work best. My role at the beginning was to provide support, information and advocacy during very difficult circumstances with the treating team.’
Eventually Angela used the techniques and information provided by Simon to get a copy of her order and use her rights under the Mental Health Act 2014. She says IMHA’s reach needs to be extended so that all consumers can have access. ‘There needs to be an IMHA presence weekly or social workers in psychiatric wards. If you asked the nurses what was happening with your treatment and when you were seeing a Dr they wouldn’t even answer you. So you've got no one in there.’
According to Simon, Angela’s experience shows the value of IMHA and self-advocacy from consumers. ‘Throughout the process, Angela’s strengths shone through, and she increasingly took ownership of her advocacy. By the end of our time working together, Angela had the information and resources to assert her own rights.’
Since leaving hospital Angela has worked hard to step down off medication ‘I'm just about off it now, it's taken me a lot of work with my GP to get me off medication that I've never been on before and never had a need for.’ She’s back at home with her children, feeling safe and determined to help others. ‘There are people still inside the hospitals who don't even know they have any rights, they just do what they're told. I've always wanted to work in community services and this has given me a push now, so I've enrolled in a diploma of community service and would like to become an advocate for others in the system one day.’
Angela is using her rights under the Mental Health Act 2014 and has lodged a complaint with the Mental Health Complaints Commissioner.
Reviewed 22 July 2021