Sanity safeguard

Reports are that Miller made a sustained verbal outburst in the office, after which a Ministry official summoned mental health officers to forcibly commit her to St Ann’s. Hospital doctors told her sister, Doreen Miller, they needed to detain Miller to treat a chemical imbalance but that Miller has been refusing medication. However Miller wants out and is being supported by Doreen, and by co-workers who said her removal from her workplace had been a disgrace.

In response in yesterday’s Newsday, Gender Minister, Verna St Rose-Greaves, shed little light on the specifics of the committal, perhaps feeling constrained by confidentiality requirements over a person’s health issues, and moreso the ticklish subject of mental health. St Rose-Greaves said that as Minister she took “final responsibility” for the situation. She denied reported complaints by Miller of victimisation and hostility in the work environment. She cryptically added, “I think it would be unfair of me to even begin to describe what has been happening in terms of Cheryl. It is not my place to do that.”

While some employees claimed Miller had not posed a safety threat to anyone, St Rose-Greaves apparently did not share that view. She said, “The persons who were in charge of the situation and in authority, and the workers, did not want any harm to come to her, for her to harm herself, or, to harm anybody else.” Other workers have the right to safety in the workplace, added St Rose-Greaves.

Avoiding specifics, the Minister said the fact of the creation of a new Ministry had been stressful for some employees, whom she said were otherwise also vulnerable to burnout. The main question for us is whether procedures and protocols were followed to send Miller to St Ann’s and for her continued detention there, as spelt out in the Mental Health Act. Should the mental health professionals who arrived on the scene have initially taken Miller to first see a general practitioner say at Port-of-Spain General Hospital (to determine whether there were other factors causing her behaviour, say such as diabetes), or were they entitled to adjudge her behaviour then and there, and decide to take her directly to St Ann’s, as in fact stated by Psychiatric Association secretary, Dr Varma Deyalsingh? Alternatively, if Miller had previously showed signs that all was not well, could not the Ministry have sent her to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) beforehand?

Until the findings of the promised investigations by the Ministry of Health, there are still too many unknowns for any armchair critic to know whether or not the Gender Ministry and the mental health officials acted correctly in mulling the balance of safety considerations versus the human rights of Miller.

There are two problems at the heart of this matter, that are distinct from, say, a case of sending an employee to treat a broken arm. Firstly the whole issue of mental health unfortunately still carries a huge stigma. It is a field that is largely not understood, by the public and in areas even by professionals. Further, in TT society, sadly some persons link mental illness to religion transgression, such as “demon possession”. Adding to the stigmatisation of mental illness is the fact it is often displayed by street-dwellers, many of whom are thought to be drug-addicted.

Secondly, any sort of incarceration in itself also subjects a person to stigmatisation.

So overall, as if the actual experience of being forced from one’s home or workplace is not unpleasant enough, the designation of someone to be a mental health patient adds to one’s woes/burdens. Further, there are questions over patients’ safety at public institutions in TT such as St Ann’s. The biggest concern of anyone reading about this incident is surely, “Could it happen to me?”. Could I, sitting at my desk or basking at home, suddenly be taken away and committed to St Ann’s in a nightmare-come-true scenario?

While mental health is a discussion topic of that we as a society seem to perpetually shy away from facing, we would hope this incident would at least give the authorities the chance to spell out, step by step, the process for committal, and conversely the rights of any citizen to challenge such a move by an employer or family member. Meanwhile we hope that Miller would soon regain her freedom, sound in mind.


"Sanity safeguard"

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