I was 13 when I was first admitted to the hospital. That’s when I knew I wasn’t a kid anymore.
That day, when I was admitted, I was placed in the Pediatric Psychiatric Unit as there was no space left. My father stayed with me. However, an hour before the end of the visit, a nurse told her to leave: Children admitted for mental illness were subject to different rules – visits were limited. He left, leaving all his parents behind. That’s how I knew I wasn’t like everyone else.
I have entered another world. A world where the adults in charge of our care had unlimited power over us. A world where expressing regret was considered misconduct and where such misconduct was allowed to subside. Medicine was a central component of child care. I quickly realized that all of us were being given the same sedative, except that the little ones were mixed with the syrup so that they would not complain about its bad taste.
As strange as it seemed at first, this world quickly became mine. I adapted, like a kid. A few weeks later, the hospital became my new normal. I no longer miss my parents. I stopped thinking about what was happening at school. I compulsorily took my pills. I realized that if I resisted too much I would be injected with a strong drug and tied to my bed for a while.
Chemical and physical restrictions are serious human rights violations. Still, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Unlike adults, children are accustomed to being subject to authority. Everyone thinks it is normal to force children. As a result, I was unable to understand the line between acceptable discipline and abuse. The staff also probably had trouble understanding this limit. Most were not bad people. They did what they were taught and sincerely believed that there was only one way to help us.
I am no longer a child like the others. I adapted so well that when I left the hospital I forgot how to be in society. I no longer feel like I’m at home or at school. My colleagues became completely strangers. Moved to a new environment, children quickly lose contact with their past lives. Mental health institutions are not only fertile ground for human rights violations, but also sever social ties. For young people, this first withdrawal from society can usher in a life of isolation and exclusion.
Although attitudes towards mental health are changing in a positive way, countless mental health organizations around the world continue to treat children who, as adults, will believe that mental anguish supports moderation and isolation. In terms of mental health, now is the time to work to replace institutional care with a comprehensive local support system. These systems must encourage inclusion rather than isolation and work with children, not against them. They must recognize that children also have rights – including the right to be free from violence and to play a leading role in their own treatment and healing.
There is no better way to improve mental health than to educate the next generation that mental anguish is not a deviant behavior that should be suppressed and hidden, but a normal aspect of human experience. To achieve this, however, the abandonment of placement in a closed environment and local support are essential.
Leah Labaki Used mental health services as a youth and is now advocating for the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities. He holds a master’s degree in human rights and humanitarian action. Her studies help her realize what her experience in psychiatry means for human rights and compel her to decide to become an expert on the rights of persons with disabilities. Leah Labaki lives in Belgium.