Counterpoint Winter 2018 • Commentary • Page 16

An old expression says, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” The opposite adage states, “Knowledge is power.”

For advocates – or any people trying to protect themselves – knowledge is critical.

The power of government is all-encompassing. We can fight back, but only to the extent that we know when things are going wrong. We can try to help identify solutions, but only if we know the problem.

Vermont sometimes misses the boat on including the voice of survivors in discussions about the issues that affect us, but the bigger problem is when we do get included, but critical information isn’t shared. It is a bigger problem than being left out altogether because it creates a false impression that our voices are being included.

The Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital has an advisory committee, and there are survivors on it. That’s good.

Hospitals that have Level 1 inpatient units are required under state law to have advisory committees. That’s good.

The Department of Mental Health has a standing committee that gives input on statewide issues and includes consumers. That’s good.

Last summer, there was a suicide attempt at VPCH, and the Division of Licensing and Protection cited the hospital for failing to do a full follow-up on safety measures. The hospital failed to tell the committee about the attempt. Instead, it actually told the committee later in the summer that Licensing and Protection had visited (without stating the reason) and that all was fine.

If the committee had been told and allowed to give input, perhaps there would have been ideas on good – or even better – safety measures. Perhaps there would not have been a citation. Perhaps patients would be safer.

Last spring, the Brattleboro Retreat, one of the state’s Level 1 hospitals, decided to lock patient bathrooms and require patients to ask staff to unlock them when needed. The new policy was never discussed in advance with the advisory committee.

If the committee had been told and allowed to give input, perhaps the Retreat would have gained an understanding of how demeaning it is to have to ask to use the bathroom, and how when a person is as powerless and dehumanized as an involuntary patient is, any bit of remaining control is critical. Perhaps other means would have been found to keep patients safe.

Last year, DMH authorized Springfield Hospital to begin using electroconvulsive therapy. The hospital’s policy included using ECT with children and seeking involuntary court orders for competent adults who were refusing ECT. DMH never told the statewide standing committee about the plans.

If the committee had been told and allowed to give input, perhaps DMH would have learned that no hospital in Vermont had ever before been authorized to use ECT with children. DMH would have been reminded that using ECT on a person who is competent to refuse treatment violates constitutional rights. Perhaps DMH would have acted to protect Vermonters.

Survivor advocates do more than fight for rights. They help agencies and hospitals and the state do better work. The more those power structures cede their power over information and seek input, the greater the opportunity for collaboration instead of confrontation.

What we don’t know can hurt us. Sharing information is sharing power, and we must demand that of the state. Otherwise, its pledges of helping to build consumer empowerment are empty promises.

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