Academic journal article South African Journal of Psychiatry

Human Rights Abuses at a Psychiatric Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal

Academic journal article South African Journal of Psychiatry

Human Rights Abuses at a Psychiatric Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal

Article excerpt

Background. Following allegations of human rights abuses at a psychiatric hospital in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, that were reported in one of the local newspapers, the national and provincial Ministers of Health visited the hospital. Because of the seriousness of the allegations, the national Minister of Health established a Committee of Enquiry to investigate the allegations. The 7 committee members included experts in mental health care services, legal services, public service sector, a hospital board member, and a representative of the community.

Objectives. The terms of reference of the Committee of Enquiry were to investigate allegations of human rights abuses of psychiatric patients at the hospital, and to report their findings to the Minister, in line with the media reports.

Methods. The public was invited through notices in the print and electronic media to make submissions relating to the allegations. Interviews and site inspections were conducted. Written submissions were received. Legislative and regulatory frameworks were studied. Reports of previous commissions as well as hospital records were analysed.

Findings. The findings of the Committee confirmed all media allegations of human rights abuses as appearing in the terms of reference. In addition, the Committee identified the following systemic defects: (i) weak management over a long period of time; (ii) absence of a hospital board; (iii) inadequacies in the physical layout and quality of facilities; (iv) abuse of staff by patients; (v) staff reporting on duty under the influence of alcohol; (vi) high rate of absenteeism; (viii) shortage of staff; (viii) lack of discipline; (ix) evidence of racism, nepotism and favouritism; and (x) strained relations between the management and unions.

Recommendations. The Committee recommended that remedial and preventive measures be undertaken as a matter of urgency to combat human rights abuses and address deficiencies in the system.

On Saturday 5 February 2005 one of the local newspapers reported allegations of human rights abuses at a psychiatric hospital. On Monday 7 February 2005 the national and provincial Ministers of Health visited the hospital.

After meeting the hospital management and conducting an in loco inspection, the national Minister of Health addressed the hospital community. She had been shocked by the newspaper report and had viewed the allegations seriously, more especially as the new Mental Health Care Act was being implemented. She expressed that there should be expeditious intervention.

Committee of Enquiry

The Minister established a Committee of Enquiry to investigate the allegations and report back in 3 weeks' time. After 3 weeks the Chairman of the Committee delivered an interim report and requested an extension of the time frame as issues requiring intensive investigation had come to light.

Members of the Committee

The seven members of the Committee were as follows: Head of the Department of Psychiatry, Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, and Head of Mental Health Services KwaZulu-Natal (Chairman); Resident Commissioner KwaZulu-Natal, Public Service Commission (Deputy Chairperson); Member of Townhill Hospital Interim Board; Programme Manager Mental Health and Substance Abuse, KwaZulu-Natal; Head of the Department of Psychology, University of Limpopo (Medunsa Campus); Specialist Psychiatrist in private practice, President Elect of the Society of Psychiatrists of South Africa; and the Chief General Manager, Legal Services in KwaZulu-Natal.

Terms of reference

The mandate of the Committee of Enquiry was to investigate allegations of human rights abuses of psychiatric patients at the hospital. In line with the media reports, the following issues were investigated: (i) neglect of patients; (ii) allegations of sexual abuse among patients, with staff turning a blind eye; (iii) physical abuse of patients by staff members; (iv) theft of patients' food; (v) theft of patients' belongings; (vi) patients sleeping on the floor; (vii) female patients not allowed access to underwear; (viii) physical abuse of staff members by patients; (ix) staff reporting on duty under the influence of alcohol; (x) high rate of staff absenteeism; and (xi) any other matters the Committee deemed necessary. …

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