A Place of No Dignity

Over the past few months, the media has been filled with reports on the injustices that  occurred when mental health patients were transferred from Life esidimeni (place of dignity) to unlicensed and ill-equipped NGO facilities. This has resulted in over 100 deaths of those patients. There has been little to no time to grieve for their families as the death of their loved ones is  in the spotlight, treated with no dignity. When a member of parliament requested a moment of silence on the day of the State of the Nation Address, the national speaker of parliament decided there was no time to have a moment of silence to mourn these lives and that it could be done in another week. Once again the poverty of black people with no access to private health care has been thrown in their faces,  it has humiliated them to death and used as a reminder of how cheap black lives are, especially that of  marginalised groups such as those with mental illnesses. So this post is to express my anger and my sadness. It also reminds me of my own encounters, how it has affected me and my loved ones. Below is a bit of my story, a story that is not entirely mine to tell but one I have  permission to share.

“If she wants to bang her head there is nothing we can do about it”

I have visited my friend in mental health facilities many times. She was usually calm and in moments where she wasn’t, we could still have a conversation and laugh. But then Thursday the 3rd of September 2015 was a bit different. I called her during the day to confirm that I would be visiting that evening and as usual, I asked if she needed anything. “They are after me, come now!” was her response. A part of me thought, oh ‘it has started again’ – assuming she was having ‘an episode’, vocabulary I found on Google when I was trying to explain to my friend’s mother what was happening. My husband and I hurried to the hospital as fast as we could and walked in the midst of her altercation with the nurse. We asked the nurse what happened, the nurse said “ask her, she knows what she did”. She kept asking to speak to her doctor, and the Head Nurse came out and said “No, you will not be speaking to your Dr, you cannot get your cellphone, you lost all those privileges when you did what you did last night. Tell them what you did last night and about what happened to your neck and about the guards and everything”. My husband and I still confused, and my friend convinced something out of space hurt her neck, I asked my husband to go talk to the nurse while I tried to calm my friend. The nurse stormed out of the nurses’ office and shouted “I don’t have to tell you anything, I will not tell you anything… the ambulance is going to come fetch her now and you must not be here when it gets here. You can go visit her to where they are taking her…. They are taking her to New Somerset Hospital”.

We found contact details and the address and went to visit  my friend at the New Somerset Hospital . Attempting to find the psych ward where we assumed she would be, we asked a security guard where the psych ward was, to which he responded ‘you are looking for there…’ as he pointed his index finger at the side of his head and drew a circle a couple of times. A sign for ‘crazy people’… When we got to the psych ward, the nurse said the ward is full and no new people had been admitted. She then suggested that we  check the casualty/ emergency ward. The nurse at the casualty ward did not know who I was talking about until I said she was a psych patient. To which regardless of how my husband and I ignored her, she kept asking what she has… ‘but what does she have’. ‘Is this the first time’ ‘shame’… Two days passed with my friend sleeping on the couch in the casualty unit because there was no space in the psych ward.

“You are behaving like a one year old child”

On 07 September 2015, I walked in to visit at almost 3pm and her mama, who flew down to Cape Town was sitting there with her daughter. My friend now had a cold and a bump on her forehead to which the nurse explained away by saying  she had tried to hurt herself. Mama said she does not understand how this happened to which the nurse replied, “There are too many patients, we cannot focus on her. If she wants to bang her head there is nothing we can do about it”. The 30 minutes I had left for visiting hours felt like 30 seconds I guess as it always does in a hospital when you want to spend time with your loved ones. Although visiting hours were over, we hung around at the hospital with her brother  while mama was talking to the doctors. My friend did not understand why she could not continue talking to us through the gate if we were still in the hospital. The security guard explained that visiting hours were over, which we understood. But my friend still did not. While we were waiting outside, the security guard was shouting at her telling her to sit down and that she could not see us. He kept looking at us almost as to justify his behaviour and would say “You see how many times these people hurt me here. When they want to go home these people hurt me so I must say no and I can’t stand by this door.”

We hung around the hospital waiting for the next visiting hour at 7pm. As we were approaching the ward fro this next visit, we could already hear screaming and banging. Afraid she might be hurting herself, we ran towards the door and found her crying and shouting asking why she had been pushed around. There was a stream of tears down her face, her eyes were red, her neck and face were slightly bruised, with fresh hand prints. My friend continued screaming that the staff was being complicit and letting security guards manhandle her just because she has a mental illness. At first I was not recording the incident but took out my phone to record when the argument between my friend and the security guard got heated. Responding to my friend she said:

Security: You were trying to kill yourself, I saved your life… I was taking the cup from you… and you are lying now, you are supposed to be thanking me!

My friend: Are you serious, how did you do that?
Security:  You tried to hang yourself also… but I was not here… you tried to do that during the day… there is a report here, there is an entry about you… whole day you were busy giving the staff here troubles.
My friend: Let’s talk about when you were here; let’s talk about when you got here. When you got here I understand that I had a mug… but to use that mug to kill myself, that is wrong… but you assumed because previously I had a mug and I broke it that I was going to break that mug… you took it… how did you take it? How did you go about doing it?
Security: I took the mug and I put it there
My friend: How did you go about taking the mug? What did you do, I was standing… how did you take that mug?’
Security: We took it and we put it here
My friend: That is not what you did, you pushed me and pushed my head against the wall
Security: Don’t lie, no one pushed your head against the wall
My friend: You are lying
Security: You are behaving like a one year old child

At this point mama tried to calm my friend down and set her down. My friend continued crying and explaining that the security guard pushed her and slapped her. Mama talked to the security guard about treating mental health patients, appealing to them to treat patients with dignity to which the security guard continued to say that my friend is troublesome and concluded by saying “okay fine whatever, if your daughter wants to kill herself again, I don’t care, I won’t do anything, if she wants to walk out she can just walk out and kill herself, I won’t do anything. Because we are trying to save her life here”. Not realising that I speak IsiXhosa, the security officer said to the other security officer ‘ndimqhwabile nangoku” (I slapped her)… . I just stood there shocked and then asked the other security officer what had happened. His response was “uyasokolisa lomntu” (This person is troublesome).

The other patient in the isolation room where they put ‘misbehaving’ patients continued banging the door asking to be let out. My friend went to the door and explained to the other patient that he must not make noise or they will not let him out. Mama called my friend to sit down. As she left the other patient banged the door even louder, to which the security officer who hit my friend stood up and went to the door and shouted: “… stop behaving like a child. If you don’t keep quiet, you will not get food, you will starve there. The more you make noise the more I am keeping you there”.

In my opinion the exact details of what happened are not the most important here especially since the lack of these details is what is often used to remind mental health patients that they could not possibly remember what happened.  I am not a doctor. I am just a friend who saw what I saw and watched a mother see what she saw. I could go on about the conditions of the hospital, my friend sleeping in a couch for 2 nights, sleeping next to two guys  with no sufficient covering, sleeping next to a coughing patient to which the nurses attending to him wore masks but she had no mask, the fact that she had no shoes on, or the fact that there is no barrier between women and men who are man handled every now and then because they are ‘dangerous’, or a patient falling and a nurse walking past and not offering assistance, or the security officer who kept telling patients that they were behaving like little children and that she would not give them food if they kept making noise.

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