Monsters preyed on mentally ill: advocate

Janet Meagher says people with a mental illness are often humiliated and denigrated.
Janet Meagher says people with a mental illness are often humiliated and denigrated.

Janet Meagher spent a decade in an institution where "monsters" in the guise of health professionals abused the mentally ill.

There were some caring staff at the large Sydney institution where Ms Meagher was an involuntary "guest of Her Majesty" while being treated for paranoid schizophrenia.

"There were, parallel to that, monsters who were in the guise of nursing professionals and care professionals," Ms Meagher told Victoria's mental health royal commission on Wednesday.

Most patients were sexually abused, she recalled 40 years after her release.

"I think you could sum up the experience - apart from the wonderful staff who were horrendously marvellous in the circumstances that they were placed - there were staff who, you just had to know that they were on duty to know that one of you was going that night."

Then there was the emotional and physical abuse, which sparked a violent response from Ms Meagher.

"I understand that now to be a reaction to the anger at the brazenness of people to claim they were health professionals, and at the same time turn around and create the most inhumane system of 'care' that you could possibly imagine.

"And because we were not competent before the law, no one would listen to what was happening."

The good staff were also bullied and intimidated.

They would say: "We can't do anything. We are hopeless to help you."

Ms Meagher is still angry about her time in that institution, but has channelled that anger into international advocacy for people with mental illnesses.

"My vision is that services will never, ever again in the name of treatment and care cause harm."

The 72-year-old wants Australia's first royal commission into the mental health system to drive real change.

"I'm begging you not for another report.

"I beg you for a change that's going to move people from a place of behaviour modification to having a contributing life, and that has to start with the professionals who deal with us, whether it be in the non-government sector, the health sector or the community sector."

Ms Meagher said even now, people with a mental illness "are just surviving" and the services meant to help them are dehumanising.

"We are often depersonalised and humiliated and denigrated by the very fact that we have a mental illness and, secondly, by the nature of the services that are offered to us."

The University of Melbourne's Dr Chris Groot said pop culture and mass media had perpetuated the stereotype of schizophrenia being a violent condition.

He pointed to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho, with its famous "psycho" with the knife behind the shower curtain.

"There has been a plethora of creative works that have demonised, dehumanised and stigmatised schizophrenia since."

Teresa shared her experience of struggling with mental health issues since she was 12 to let others know they are worthwhile and deserve help.

"When I was in hospital I recognised that it was my fear and shame about what I had been going through that had really prevented me from being able to access support," she said.

"I don't want someone else to feel that way."

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Australian Associated Press