Health Care

Patients, families share wrenching stories of involuntary hospitalization

Christina Schumacher spent 5 1/2 weeks in involuntary treatment at Fletcher Allen Health Care after her husband allegedly killed their son and himself. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger
Christina Schumacher spent 5 1/2 weeks in involuntary treatment at Fletcher Allen Health Care after her husband allegedly killed their son and himself. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

After listening to hours of painful personal stories, lawmakers said they need to do more to ensure psychiatric patients receive appropriate care and support services.

Vermonters suffering from mental illness and family members testified at a public hearing Thursday night on the state’s involuntary treatment process. More than 30 people spoke at the hearing on S.287, a bill before the Senate Judiciary and Health and Welfare committees, which seeks to streamline the judicial review process for orders of involuntary medication.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, was struck by how long it takes for patients to go through the involuntary treatment process.

He said he recognizes that forced medication can be devastating for patients, but said he didn’t believe S.287 would lead to more involuntary medication orders and, if anything, would lead to quicker court rulings.

The committees have heard testimony from clinicians, members of the judiciary and the attorneys involved in the involuntary medication process, but Thursday night was an opportunity for members of the public to share how the process has affected their lives.

Excruciating waits

Family members spoke of the terrifying and sometimes violent episodes of psychosis that precede involuntary commitment, which can involve police, handcuffs and occasionally harm to the patient or others.

They described the waiting period for courts to approve an order for involuntary medication as excruciating, while patients recalled the indignity of being restrained and injected with powerful psychotropic drugs as traumatic and often resulting in long-lasting harm.

Patients and families asked for a greater role in the treatment process.

Ron Powers testified about his son, who suffered a psychotic breakdown and was taken against his will to Rutland Regional Medical Center. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger
Ron Powers testified about his son, who suffered a psychotic breakdown and was taken against his will to Rutland Regional Medical Center. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

Ron Powers and his wife, Honoree Fleming, told how their son, 32, suffers from schizophrenia. In September, he suffered a psychotic breakdown and was taken against his will to Rutland Regional Medical Center, Powers said.

Their son was placed in an emergency department bed, in a room with no windows, no television and no books, Powers said. He spent 11 days in the room, waiting for a bed to open up in the psychiatric ward, despite the three-day limit set by law.

“He didn’t believe he was ill so he refused medication,” Powers said. “Our current laws prohibited his doctors from overriding his delusion.”

After being transferred to a psychiatric ward, he continued to refuse treatment and it took 52 days before a judge approved clinicians’ application to have him involuntarily medicated, Powers said.

“When the injections were finally allowed to commence … my son’s psychotic state began to ease,” Powers said. “He is home again, calm but not cured.”

The damage he believes occurred to his son’s brain in that time could have been avoided had he been medically treated, Powers said.

Dr. Jarugumlli Brahmaiah and other family members shared similar stories.

Brahmaiah’s son suffered a mental breakdown, lost his job and went into a downward spiral, eventually refusing to eat before being committed to a psychiatric hospital, he said.

It took 45 days for him to receive involuntary medication, Brahmaiah said.

“You see the bruises, you see the safe rooms, you see the restraints, and it’s heartbreaking,” he said.

Potential for harm

Laura Sisson, a young woman who spent six years in the mental health system, said she was frequently medicated against her will during that period.

Laura Sisson said she spent six years in the mental health system and was frequently medicated against her will. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger
Laura Sisson said she spent six years in the mental health system and was frequently medicated against her will. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

“I am here to talk about the great potential harm for anything that aims to reduce an individual’s voice in actions that are done against their body,” she said.

Sisson said she entered the mental health system at 15 with a diagnosis of a generalized anxiety, which was eventually amended to schizoaffective disorder.

“What none of these diagnoses could tell you is that I had experienced early and repeated sexual trauma that was deeply connected to all the symptoms that the mental health system was insisting be managed by medication,” she said. “Each time I was forced to take that medication against my will, all it served to do was further entrench the message that I had no power or control over my body.”

Sisson said many psychiatric patients have a history of trauma, and removing barriers to medicating them involuntarily runs the risk of causing deep and lasting harm that could outweigh any therapeutic value of medication.

Luke Shalen said that after he was involuntarily treated, he was released without any support system. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger
Luke Shalen said that after he was involuntarily treated, he was released without any support system. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

Luke Shalen, 33, said he was diagnosed with schizophrenia eight years ago. He said it was his first time speaking publicly about his condition.

Shalen has had three hospital admissions in that time. In each instance, he said he had no memory of the events that triggered his hospitalizations.

During all three hospitalizations he was medicated involuntarily, he said.

“My experiences with medication, to the extent that I could process them, have been unsuccessful traumatica and a personal violation,” Shalen said.

Upon admission, there was no opportunity for him to participate in developing a coherent treatment plan, and the decisions to medicate him occurred at hearing he was unable to attend, he said.

Afterward he was discharged with no life plan or guidance on a path forward. The hospitalizations left him with no insight into his illness, he said.

“I had been medicated but I had not been treated,” he said. “I had learned nothing from these experiences except that I never wanted to have them again.”

Shalen urged lawmakers to provide alternative mental health treatment options, rather than accommodating hospitals by making it easier to medicate their patients involuntarily.

‘It has been hell’

Christina Schumacher, who was committed to Fletcher Allen Health Care the day after authorities say her estranged husband killed their son before taking his own life, gave a fiery, profanity-laced condemnation of the involuntary treatment process.

Schumacher was recently released following a five and a half week involuntary commitment. She signed up to speak under the pseudonym Nitro, and testified wearing a hat and dark sunglasses.

“The bottom line is no one should have to endure the death of their son, the death of their husband and then put in that situation,” she said.

Schumacher credited an attorney with the Disability Law Project for helping her to understand her rights and empowering her to stand up to the clinicians.

“I fought for my rights and I’m out of there,” she said. “No one should ever have to endure what I’ve gone through, it has been hell.”

Her words drew applause from the audience and disrupted the hearing. Sears immediately called for a five-minute break.

Caregivers concerned about their safety

Vicki Mendick, a psychiatric nurse at a local hospital, said she chose her profession out of love and compassion for the mentally ill, but said recently she’s become concerned about her safety.

Vicki Mendick, a psychiatric nurse at a local hospital, said she cares about the mentally ill, but recently has become concerned about her safety. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger
Vicki Mendick, a psychiatric nurse at a local hospital, said she cares about the mentally ill, but recently has become concerned about her safety. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

“We’re being hurt as clinicians,” she said. “We’re being injured on the job.”

She had never been hurt by a patient in 17 years, but twice in the past two months Mendick said she was attacked by a patient.

One patient slammed a door on her hand, the other kicked her in the face. The woman who kicked her spent 3½ hours in restraints without medication. When she was released, the patient kicked her again, Mendick said.

“In my experience, a patient who is involuntarily medicated, with the proper medication, will calm down and be allowed to be escorted back to their room within 15 minutes,” she said. “To allow someone to languish in four-point restraints for that amount of time is inhumane in my opinion.”

Federal laws allow patients who present an immediate danger to themselves or others to be chemically sedated. It was unclear if that was an option in the situation Mendick described.

However, she said she believes it is also inhumane to allow someone to languish in a hospital for months at a time.

Streamlining the process so patients with acute psychosis can access inpatient beds, get treatment and be released for continued treatment in the community should be the priority.

“Putting a person in the hospital and then not being able to treat them, among my colleagues and I, is unconscionable,” she said.

Attorney Barry Kade, who testified toward the end of the three-hour hearing, said those who spoke clearly illustrated that the system is broken, he said.

He said the testimony also revealed to him that some patients react well to psychiatric drugs, while others are traumatized and experience lasting harm.

“This bill rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he said.

He doesn’t see anything in the proposed law that would give a judge the tools to distinguish between the patients who would be helped from those that would be harmed by voluntary medication, he said.

Lyons, who serves on the Health and Welfare Committee, said she understood the urgency from families to get their loved ones through treatment, as well as the patients’ aversion to involuntary medication.

Given that most involuntary medication orders are resolved without a court order, Lyons said she wasn’t sure allowing involuntary treatment and medication applications to be filed at the same time — as S.287 would — is a good idea.

“I think the bill is aggressive in that area,” she said.

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Morgan True

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  • Curtis Sinclair

    “Streamlining” the court process will only make it impossible for a patient to win and avoid forced medical malpractice. More voluntary community services would help to keep people from needing to be hospitalized. THAT is what is broken in the system. But we keep seeing stories in the news like this: “Governor Peter Shumlin’s budget would cut about $11 million from mental health programs. The proposed cuts include a 5 percent reduction for community mental health agencies. “,d.cWc

  • Fred Woogmaster

    What about utilizing the ‘guardian ad litem’ concept with this relatively small group of people. A small cadre of suitable and trained ‘guardians’ could assist the Court in this most difficult process. Are guardian ad litems used for this purpose, at all, now?

  • Zachary Hughes

    A balence needs to be found

  • rosemarie jackowski

    Even a court appointed guardian would not always be the answer. Remember the Ronald Comeau case in Bennington.

    The answer is that everyone needs a health care advocate. You never know when disaster will strike. You cannot depend on the Court or the hospital ethics committee to protect us.,3664970

  • Curtis Sinclair

    A balance has been found. Only 45 petitions for non-emergency involuntary medication were filed last year in VT and only 29 of them were granted by the courts. That doesn’t sound like any crisis to me. Current VT law allows for emergency involuntary medications when a patient is violent. They are just trying to rig the system so that everyone is drugged immediately. That will lead to more misdiagnoses and improper treatment like the kind that was documented by the US Department of Justice at the Vermont State Hospital in 2005.

    From Kevin Turnquist M.D. “Time is the biggest current obstacle to making good diagnoses. Psychiatric time is a scarce and expensive resource in our clinics and hospitals these days. There is no time for lengthy diagnostic interviews. Thirty minutes with a new patient is a luxury in some settings. The catch is that psychiatric diagnosis is based on a longitudinal perspective of the person’s life and symptoms of mental illness. You need to know basic things like when the illness began, what symptoms have been characteristic, whether they were episodic or continuous, and if they were related to things like substance abuse or medical problems.”

    The problem with the system is that there are not enough voluntary community treatment options for people with mental illness and this leads to many hospitalizations.

    • Peggy utterback

      I realize this is an old article . I have stumbled upon it while desperately searching, researching and beginning what appears to be the daunting and gut wrenching task of trying to rescue my sister from this sickly tangled mess of “the system”. It may not sound like a crisis, unless you are one of the 29. My sister is. She is a victim of involuntary commitment and involuntary, court ordered and, at times, violently enfoced medication. Anyone who thinks that the processes that take place in order for this violation of a persons very humanity to actually be performed should in some way be “streamlined” or become, oh dare I say “easier”?……..
      Not until you put yourself in her shoes. Or hey, even mine. Sitting with her as she takes her court forced dope, and again, in the silence, I hear it. repeatedly, every day, 2:30pm……
      Will Broken…….initialed, dated and timed, signed, sealed, delivered. 3 years. Not only upon emergency admission, not discontinued when there is a change in attending docs, but day in day out, week after week, months…..3 FREAKING YEARS?!?!?
      I’m sorry. I just get a little worked up. I can tell you this. She is so so so very traumatized by living this helacious nightmare. She has been brought to the proverbial brink, questioning her very sanity. Slowly coming to the realization that wanted or not the damage, to a certain extent, most certainly has been done. When I get her free, we both are uncertain how much of her will be left, what long term sequele will there be after being forced to daily alter ones brain chemistry, the Rabbit Hole can get real deep. I tell her to have hope. I tell her we love her, every bit, and I will gladly take what is left and tresure it and help her heal……but thats another topic, and the task at hand seems so impossible, to counter “The System”. I’m someone on the outside, trying to get to someone imprisoned within…….deep inside an ominous and dangerous maze that has cost deeply those who try to solve it.
      I’m afraid, at some level, of the system and it’s workings, like a carnivorous monster devouring its young…………..take a few people, really only a handful is needed, you know, just the average substance abuser, or persons with GAD, maybe an eating disorder, OCD, bipolar. Vulnerable people. People seeking and needing help. Well, just assume that a few of these patients become long term, residents, not getting better, getting, in fact worse. Becoming, eventually, so ill, that they need to be annually recommitted and meds re-court ordered…….
      Anybody ever work in a job where you have to write grant proposals each year? Sounds similar, huh? Just a few of these so severely ill patients at any facility that takes medicare/medicade…..bread and butter baby!!! BaBayam! Wouldn’t take many. 29 sounds like a great start!

      But wait. Surely, a normal person cannot just get swallowed up and dissapear, lost in the mountains of legal tape and medical docudata. Define normal. Someone earnestly seeking professional help, recognizing symptoms, being responsible, taking care of ones self, all in order to be healthy to be able to care for family, friends and so on. Say that someone has dead or distant parents. No siblings. No one to come looking for that someone, no advocate, no support, no one to hold a hand or ask questions when things slowly begin to take a sinister turn. No one to object to a lobotomy, electric shock treatments or court ordered and brutally enforced medication, to which the least worrisome side effects include facial hair growth on women, weight gain, skin blemishes, profuse sweating, extreme lethargy, slurred speech, hormonal imbalances, ……..I can’t imagine enduring these to take a life saving med, what a nightmare to not even need or want the med to begin with. Imagine watching yourself turn into something unrecognizable? The whole time screaming at the top of your lungs (only figuratively though or you won’t be allowed outside and next time the court ordered med comes due it won’t be given by mouth, unless you behave. Who said the mentally ill are stripped of basic human rights, they still get to chose, in a round about way, how they take their poison.

      Well, soon to be one less statistic if I have any say. Until mental illness is treated, by society as a whole , as any other illness, and patients are respected instead of ridiculed, listened to instead of lied to, treated with compassion not conceite, learned from instead of instructed to…..the system will remain bleak, broken and hurtful. Such a tradgedy.

  • Curtis Sinclair

    There was a recent Seven Days article on the promise of Open Dialogue, a method that replaces antipsychotic medication with talk therapy.

    A must read is Anatomy of an Epidemic by journalist Robert Whitaker.

    Also see : The Case for Selective Use of Antipsychotics
    “There is a subset of first-episode psychotic patients who, if treated with psychosocial care but without antipsychotics, can recover.”

    Also: The case against antipsychotic drugs: a 50-year record of doing more harm than good by Robert Whitaker