People are locked up in isolation rooms, restrained, or otherwise severely restricted in their freedom of movement, on a daily basis. A study a few months ago found that, in the Netherlands, between 2004 and 2008, about 150 people have been secluded for a year or longer at a time. For comparison: our country has 16 million residents, and we have about 8,000 Mental Health Act treatment/long-stay orders and the same number of assessment orders each year. This doesn’t count the people locked up for a while only to be isolated again a short while later, or those locked up for months but not yet a year. One such case, which was widely covered in the media in 2008, involved Alex, a severely autistic man in his forties who had at the time the media was alerted, been isolated for over half a year. Alex had been living in a workhome (residential combined working-living placement for autistics) for twelve years, when changes to staffing and client population made him uncomfortable. He started displaying increasing irritability, screaming, damaging objects, etc. He was locked up in an isolation room at his Groningen area institution for several months. At first, he was “mobilized” (let out of the isolation room for short periods) every now and then to go on a walk with a staff member, but after a while, he was secluded 24/7. His staff didn’t want it this way, so they proposed he be transferred to an Amsterdam observation clinic, believing he’d get better care there. As soon as he arrived there, he was, however, put right into the isolation room, remaining there for another several months until his famly alerted the media. He was never formally observed until a Member of Parliament started asking questions, at which point he was let out of the isolation room and actually being observed. We weren’t informed what that observation was supposed to be for or whether it has lead to any constructive intervention plans, and if so, whether these plans have been followed through with, but it looked that his family was eventually relatively content (or of course they were shut up by the clinic).
This story emerged amidst a number of horrifying isolation room stories that made it into the media in the fall of 2008, among them two people dying at another Amsterdam clinic. Some politicians called for the abolishment of isolation rooms. At that point, a well-known psychiatrist spoke up in the media: isolation rooms would still be necessary even if large amounts of funding were pumped into extra staffing, cause “you can’t sit on people to prevent them from self-harming, can you?” Well, I have neither been isolated (time-out rooms are different from isolation rooms), nor been restrained, but indeed, I would say isolation seems better (moreover because restraint is here almost always combined with isolation or time-out). But this reasoning would only be useful if all patients currently locked up in isolation rooms, could actually only be prevented from self-harming by being “sat on” (ie. restraint). This is entirely incorrect, not only because actual attempted serious self-harm or aggression is not the only reason, or even the most frequently used reason, for isolation, but also because people are usually isolated for a far longer time than they are actually threatening.
What does it mean when a psychiatrist says that there is no alternative to isolation? Quite likely, it means that there is no alternative, within the limits of the current situation on the ward that psychiatrist works at or the wards he knows of, that is as cheap, convenient to the staff, and will “fix” the problem behavior as quickly as isolation supposedly would (except for maybe restraint). I don’t know what type of ward that psychiatrist works at, if any (he was speaking on behalf of a professional association), but I have already stated many times that the care provided at the majority of wards, does not allow for such a black-and-white reasoning at all. Indeed, if there’s a ward with 24 people with developmental disabilities and severe self-injurious/aggressive behavior (and I know of such a ward, its director voluntarily participated in a TV documentary), and there are only three or four staff members on each shift, it is impossible to “sit on” a threatening patient, but the reason has nothing to do with ethics. I don’t know what the staff/patient ratio at Alex’s Amsterdam observation ward (or his workhome for that matter) was, but if it’s anywhere like this or even if it’s a little better, it is unlikely that he will be able to be observed at all. But if this is the case, it isn’t anything about Alex that made him “unobservable”.
Besides this quantitative lack of care on most wards, how qualified is the care, really? For example, is anyone on that observation ward Alex was sent to, trained in functional behavioral assessments? I doubt it, since this is not something psychiatric nurses get trained in, and a psychologist can’t go over to the ward to observe the patients on a regular basis. (When a psychologist once mentioned this during a treatment plan meeting of mine, I was probably the only person in the room who knew what he was talking about.) Maybe there are more staff trained in this method on developmental disabilities wards (Alex lived in a psychiatric institution), but I’m not sure. It is easy to blame the patients for their “random” aggression or self-injury (hint: if aggression/self-injury is truly random, have medical causes been ruled out?), but if you were only able to collect random data due to being too busy on an understaffed ward with all the bureaucratic requirements set forth to increase paper tiger “quality”, or due to your lack of training in standardized obsevation methods like FBAs, how would you expect to find anything useful?
And if, by magic, a patient’s behavioral assessment did meet the standards, is the plan developed on the basis of that assessment, going to be followed through? Most likely not, because staff shortage, unqualified staffing, an environment that cannot be controlled to meet the individual’s needs, etc., will again mean the patient doesn’t receive proper support. It doesn’t matter that appropriate support would prevent or significantly reduce acting-out behavior, since the patient has to be molded into the sytem somehow.
I know, again, that this is the way it is now. I know we can’t change it overnight. But I also know that if we accept the reality as it is now, we will be stuck forever with people with severe disabilities (not just autism, but other developmental and psychiatric disabilities) in isolation rooms for over a year. It isn’t like more and better qualified staff could only be used to sit on patients – if that were the case, we could pull out a can of managers and bureaucrats to do that job instead of writing thousands of quality paper tigers. What quality are they writing about anyway? Not quality of care if you ask me.