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Column Whistleblowers are essential to our society – and I should know

Louise Bayliss was made redundant after publicising the treatment of mental health patients. Following her reinstatement, she argues Ireland has kept secrets for too long.

Before Christmas, mental health advocate Louise Bayliss publicly raised concerns about the treatment of patients at St Brendan’s Hospital in Grangegorman, Dublin. She was made redundant by her employer weeks later – before being reinstated after TDs called for an inquiry.

Here, she writes for about the importance of lifting the veil of secrecy around the mental health system, and the crucial role that whistleblowers have to play.

IRELAND HAS A long tradition of bestowing power on those that claim ‘expert’ status, perhaps as a throwback to our colonial past.

For centuries, the church has claimed to be the ‘expert’ on morality. There is no doubt there was good done by the church, but no institution or group of people should be able to exert that much control over another. We allowed them to dictate their code of morality and as a result we accepted their treatment of those deemed unworthy. This removed our collective and personal responsibility to act on our inherent sense of what is right and wrong – but this is essential for any caring society.

The last Magdalene Laundry only closed in 1996, and we are justifiably horrified at our historic acceptance of the violation of the human rights and dignity of women in these facilities. We pride ourselves at how we have managed to shrug off control of the church and how atrocities such as this could never recur. But is this the truth? Have we given this power to another group who claim ‘expert’ knowledge?

Historically, mental illness and the ignorance surrounding it have provoked fear in the general public. I would argue that our fear has removed us from facing our responsibility towards the mentally ill. Psychiatry has claimed ‘expert’ knowledge on the treatment and containment of the mentally ill and we have gratefully allowed them to manage those they deem mentally ill, with scant regard to protection of their human rights.

There is no doubt that psychiatry is a very valuable tool in helping mental illness, but if we are to learn anything from our recent past, it is surely that no person should be given absolute power over the fate of another human being. Psychiatrists have a nexus of knowledge/power which is sustained by its connection to science and which needs to be subjected to critical discourse. All power must be subject to stringent checks and balances.

‘The incarceration has no sentencing guidelines’

A psychiatrist stands alone as the only person who has the power to deprive someone of their liberty. This incarceration is not based on what deed a person has committed, but on what the psychiatrist deems they may do. The incarceration has no sentencing guidelines and a person’s release is not guaranteed but is dependent on an ‘expert’ opinion. Although we could argue that there is now a jury system in place in the form of Mental Health Tribunals, the reality is the ‘expert’ knowledge is revered so much that in 2011, the independent tribunals agrees with the psychiatrist’s recommendations in 92 per cent of cases.

Just like the Magdalene Laundries, long term psychiatric units are closed secretive units removed from the public domain and perhaps that is right to preserve the resident’s privacy and dignity. Nevertheless, the mental health budget has been disproportionately and continuously cut, long before the end of the Celtic Tiger and this has obviously led to a deterioration of conditions. The most progressive and caring psychiatrists are confined by budgetary concerns and often forced to make diagnoses in minutes and to use medication as the only tool for recovery.

Whistleblowing is an essential part of any society, but particularly where there are voiceless people or where people are removed from the mainstream. We as a society must ensure the dignity and human rights of all our citizen’s and we have to take that collective responsibility. It is too important a duty to outsource it to other parties. Whistleblowing brings issues in to the public domain for the good of our people. Secrecy has led to many shameful practices in Ireland, and I welcome an Ireland that sheds its veils of secrecy and is mature enough to discuss the rights of all our people.

Louise Bayliss works as an advocate for mental health patients as part of the Irish Advocacy Network.

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