A primitive country

By Raffique Shah
April 08, 2012

Raffique ShahTHE perception that there are more mad people outside the St Ann’s Hospital than there are inside that mental institution seems to be reality, following the forcible detention of public servant Cheryl Miller. I was outraged on learning of the woman’s plight, which only came to public attention when her co-workers protested her Gulag or Guantanamo-like situation. By then, this hapless citizen had already spent almost two weeks in the madhouse.

It is frightening to learn that in this day we have laws on the statute books that allow the “authorities”, whomever they may be, to grab someone from his or her home or workplace or the street, and, based upon the evaluation of some mental health personnel, detain such person in prison-like conditions. Even worse, the “authorities” are empowered to administer questionable drugs to such detainees, against their will, without having to inform their families or relatives or anyone.

This alarming state of affairs is not just about Cheryl Miller, or the hundreds of “patients” at St Ann’s that Health Minister Fuad Khan said ought never to have been institutionalised. It’s about you and me. It’s about every citizen of this country, and quite possibly about visitors to our shores who, like us, may know nothing about our laws. Truth is, like most persons, I imagine, I never gave any thought to the Mental Health Act, or whatever law or laws empower the “authorities” to act in this Stalinist manner, until now.

I remember John Humphrey relating, many years ago, the circumstances that led to him being institutionalised at the said St Ann’s when he was a young man. His family, he said, was not impressed with his eccentricity, and worse, his interest in a dark-skinned girl. So John was carted off to the “madhouse”, where he spent some time. He eventually emerged from the institution with a document certifying that he was not mad. As he used to say when anyone called him “ah madman”, “I have a certificate showing I am not mad… do you?”

I know, too, in the run-up to the virtual collapse of the Regiment in 1970, scores of soldiers were on psychiatric leave, some real, others contrived. One private soldier who faked mental instability was sent to St Ann’s. Thanks to a nurse who recognised that he was not mad, he was advised to not take the tablets the doctors administered: he cleverly placed them in his mouth and later spat them out. He remained there until one night a stark-naked, certified mad woman leapt on top of him, screaming, “Mih man… ah looking for yuh long time!” He was out of there the next morning.

Jokes aside, it is unthinkable that the archaic laws that led to Humphrey being institutionalised decades ago remain unchanged. As I write, Justice Kokaram has ordered that Ms Miller be released from the dungeon on a provisional basis, pending independent psychiatric evaluation. Even that, though, won’t suffice. Clearly, Government needs to act with haste to insert safety mechanisms that would ensure transparent procedures are adhered to before anyone can be sent to the madhouse.

The way Ms Miller’s case has come across thus far, it seems that the persons who decided to commit her are madder than their certified wards. I heard the Association of Psychiatrists, in defence of its members who may have had something to do with this case, pronounce on their professionalism. Many people who have had to interface with some of these professionals, though, do not trust them to make such decisions.

One might ask, for example, what drugs were administered to Ms Miller, and what long-term effects they may have on her mental stability. In other words, the woman may have been taken to St Ann’s perfectly sane, but emerged weeks later mentally scarred or worse. We don’t know for certain. But as citizens we are entitled to ask questions, especially about the deleterious side-effects of certain drugs.

The Miller case also threw a not-so-flattering spotlight on Gender Affairs Minister Verna St Rose Greaves. The Minister is among the few in Cabinet who people trust because of her outspokenness and the principled position she has adopted on controversial issues. With Ms Miller being a senior employee in her ministry, people expected Verna to come clean, to have compassion for a “sister” who may have crossed a behavioural line while under stress—again, I don’t know.

Indeed, from what the public has seen and heard thus far, people expected to see and hear many ministers, including Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, speak out and take action in defence of the fundamental rights and freedom of this embattled woman. Instead, there was a deafening silence from Cabinet and Parliament except for the lone intervention of Dr Amery Browne, and his may be seen as being political.

For me, unless Ms Miller is exposed as some deranged terrorist who was about to bomb Parliament or poison her minister and her colleagues, her forcible and more than likely illegal incarceration is a horrible abuse of power or authority by those responsible for putting her behind bars. Just the trauma of having her freedom taken from her without due process is enough to send the woman mad. Ask me. I’ve been there (prison, not the madhouse!), seen it happen to innocent men, so I know what I write about.

Look, we make all kinds of claims about the advanced, 21st-century society that is Trinidad and Tobago. Many of them are oh-so-hollow. When, however, a citizen can be cast into a dungeon against her will and without due process, we remain mired in a medieval mould that makes those who nailed Christ to the cross look like visionaries.

In so many ways, we live in a primitive country.

4 thoughts on “A primitive country”

  1. Raffique, this is not an unusual case anywhere in the world. The question is what level of intrusion do we expect from the authorities. (Notice I didn’t say government.) Your memory of John Humphrey and my memory of Jean Miles aside, how does one classify erratic behaviour?? Who makes the decisions that behaviour is erratic?? When is that erratic behaviour detremental to the society and when it is not?? These questions will be an ongoing discussion and the parameters will move back and forth according to the times. We see people living on the streets of the country and some attack other ‘supposedly’ normal people. Only then does the authority intervene. Is that too late?? Should something have been done before the attack?? Should we have people living on the street?? Where are their relatives and families??

    These are not easy questions to answer. And we hope that this case has been resolved, except for the litigation.

  2. This event, in our present history, is a watershed. The silence as you said, in Parliament, is deafening.
    I am wondering what would have been Ms. Miller’s fate if her co-workers did not raise a hue and cry. Would she have languished there, being force-fed psycotropic drugs, until her vital organs failed?

    I do not fault the initial call for medical help. I was not there, I do not know what happened, and depending, it could have been worse if the police were called instead. What shocks me is the wilingnesss of medical/psychiatric people to administer dangerous drugs, without a clear idea of her situation. Its as if one throws pills at a problem, until something works or you bury the patient.Their willingness to accept an open-ended committing, which has never before been part of who we are, is also stunningly dangerous.

    Any bizarre behaviour, that, in the eyes of the observer, may indicate a psychiatric emergency, cannot reult in confinement for more than two weeks.

    The St. Ann’s hospital seems to be, based on this incident, a “Dump and Forget” place.

    I am assred by a relative who worked in England in such facilities for twenty years, and then at St. Ann’s until she got fed up, that sane people in those places, begin to imitate the ehaviour of those around them.

    Ms. Miller may now need psychiatric help, where before, she was only angry and frustrated.

  3. It seems to me that under certain temperatures and pressures, pollution is mixing with the chemistry of the body resulting in unpredictable reactions.

  4. The situation with Ms Miller was one that could have been settled if the grievance procedure was used to address the problem that existed at the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development. Ms Miller was constantly being provoked, harrass and verbally abused by another female co-worker at the Ministry, Ms Miller”s complaint about the situation to senior officers fell on deaf ears. This situation continued over a period of time,and Ms Miller stopped complaining. Every human being knows that there is a time when you can”t take no more and you have to defend yourself, and that is what Ms Miller did verbally without any profanity. Does that mean that you are a danger to your self and others? Ms Miller was in the process of writing an apology for her “outburst” and an account of the incident as she was instructed to do by the Hon:Ministry Ms Verna St Rose Greaves, while sitting at her desk writing the report health workers came and remove her and carried her straight to St Ann”s Mental Institution. While they were carrying her away she was quitely saying to them,”where are you taking me, you are embarrasing me , why are you doing this to me”. No member of MANAGEMENT had the decency to call Ms Miller”s relatives to inform them where she was to be taken,Ms Miller was able to make a phone call while in the ambulance to her sister just being able to say,”they taking me to the hospital”, before the phone was taken away from her. Ms Miller stayed at St Ann”s Mental Institution for 15 days where she was medicated and injected against her will and without the consent of her relatives. Ms Miller has never had a history of mental illness and has worked within the Public Service for over 20 years with an unblemished work record. This is Trinidad & Tobago 2012 HAPPY 50TH INDEPENDENCE TO YOU.

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