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A primitive country

By Raffique Shah

THE perception that there are more mad people outside the St Ann's Hospital than there are inside that mental institution seems to be reality, following the forcible detention of public servant Cheryl Miller. I was outraged on learning of the woman's plight, which only came to public attention when her co-workers protested her Gulag or Guantanamo-like situation. By then, this hapless citizen had already spent almost two weeks in the madhouse.

It is frightening to learn that in this day we have laws on the statute books that allow the "authorities", whomever they may be, to grab someone from his or her home or workplace or the street, and, based upon the evaluation of some mental health personnel, detain such person in prison-like conditions. Even worse, the "authorities" are empowered to administer questionable drugs to such detainees, against their will, without having to inform their families or relatives or anyone.

This alarming state of affairs is not just about Cheryl Miller, or the hundreds of "patients" at St Ann's that Health Minister Fuad Khan said ought never to have been institutionalised. It's about you and me. It's about every citizen of this country, and quite possibly about visitors to our shores who, like us, may know nothing about our laws. Truth is, like most persons, I imagine, I never gave any thought to the Mental Health Act, or whatever law or laws empower the "authorities" to act in this Stalinist manner, until now.

I remember John Humphrey relating, many years ago, the circumstances that led to him being institutionalised at the said St Ann's when he was a young man. His family, he said, was not impressed with his eccentricity, and worse, his interest in a dark-skinned girl. So John was carted off to the "madhouse", where he spent some time. He eventually emerged from the institution with a document certifying that he was not mad. As he used to say when anyone called him "ah madman", "I have a certificate showing I am not mad... do you?"

I know, too, in the run-up to the virtual collapse of the Regiment in 1970, scores of soldiers were on psychiatric leave, some real, others contrived. One private soldier who faked mental instability was sent to St Ann's. Thanks to a nurse who recognised that he was not mad, he was advised to not take the tablets the doctors administered: he cleverly placed them in his mouth and later spat them out. He remained there until one night a stark-naked, certified mad woman leapt on top of him, screaming, "Mih man... ah looking for yuh long time!" He was out of there the next morning.

Jokes aside, it is unthinkable that the archaic laws that led to Humphrey being institutionalised decades ago remain unchanged. As I write, Justice Kokaram has ordered that Ms Miller be released from the dungeon on a provisional basis, pending independent psychiatric evaluation. Even that, though, won't suffice. Clearly, Government needs to act with haste to insert safety mechanisms that would ensure transparent procedures are adhered to before anyone can be sent to the madhouse.

The way Ms Miller's case has come across thus far, it seems that the persons who decided to commit her are madder than their certified wards. I heard the Association of Psychiatrists, in defence of its members who may have had something to do with this case, pronounce on their professionalism. Many people who have had to interface with some of these professionals, though, do not trust them to make such decisions.

One might ask, for example, what drugs were administered to Ms Miller, and what long-term effects they may have on her mental stability. In other words, the woman may have been taken to St Ann's perfectly sane, but emerged weeks later mentally scarred or worse. We don't know for certain. But as citizens we are entitled to ask questions, especially about the deleterious side-effects of certain drugs.

The Miller case also threw a not-so-flattering spotlight on Gender Affairs Minister Verna St Rose Greaves. The Minister is among the few in Cabinet who people trust because of her outspokenness and the principled position she has adopted on controversial issues. With Ms Miller being a senior employee in her ministry, people expected Verna to come clean, to have compassion for a "sister" who may have crossed a behavioural line while under stress—again, I don't know.

Indeed, from what the public has seen and heard thus far, people expected to see and hear many ministers, including Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, speak out and take action in defence of the fundamental rights and freedom of this embattled woman. Instead, there was a deafening silence from Cabinet and Parliament except for the lone intervention of Dr Amery Browne, and his may be seen as being political.

For me, unless Ms Miller is exposed as some deranged terrorist who was about to bomb Parliament or poison her minister and her colleagues, her forcible and more than likely illegal incarceration is a horrible abuse of power or authority by those responsible for putting her behind bars. Just the trauma of having her freedom taken from her without due process is enough to send the woman mad. Ask me. I've been there (prison, not the madhouse!), seen it happen to innocent men, so I know what I write about.

Look, we make all kinds of claims about the advanced, 21st-century society that is Trinidad and Tobago. Many of them are oh-so-hollow. When, however, a citizen can be cast into a dungeon against her will and without due process, we remain mired in a medieval mould that makes those who nailed Christ to the cross look like visionaries.

In so many ways, we live in a primitive country.

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