Shawn Henfling responds to an unknown nurse’s treatment of a mentally ill young woman in an Emergency Room.
Here in the United States it is against the law to be mentally ill. Just pause for a moment and think about what I just said. People are incarcerated because they are mentally ill. We put people in jail for being sick. No, there aren’t any laws explicitly stating criminal sanctions for a mental illness diagnosis. However, our jails and prisons are absolutely teeming with people who have fallen through the cracks of a system designed and rigged against them. In 2006, the National Institute of Corrections estimated that the U.S. prison and jail population included over a million people with mental illnesses. We don’t toss people away for getting the flu, sinus infections, irritable bowel syndrome or cancer. Why then are the mentally ill locked away?
I recently read a heartbreaking letter by a woman whose adult daughter faces this very issue. Admittedly, the letter only illuminates one side of the brouhaha. The young woman was brought into the emergency room on a voluntary crisis intervention call and things spiraled out of control. Not only was she treated poorly, but the nurse on duty acted in what appears to be an irresponsible manner. I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt. I want to believe that perhaps she was slogging her way through a troublesome and stressful time in her life. I truly want to believe those things but they somehow don’t add up to an excuse. Nobody deserves to be attacked or harmed while trying to do their job. On the other hand, someone in her position should have been trained to handle the situation without forcible detention. With that in mind, I’d like to see that this response somehow make it to that nurse.
I’m not here to judge you or the job you do. I’m married to a nurse and I know better than most the demands on you, your time and your family. I’ve witnessed what a tough night can do to a persons psyche and how sometimes emotions can teeter on the razors edge. You see terrible things on a nightly basis and often witness the worst humanity has to offer. You and men and women like you are the face of medical care in this fractured and broken system and that kind of burden is backbreaking and unfair. I understand. But there is another side to consider.
People have a right to be seen as more than an ailment, disease and injury. Especially late at night, the emergency room is our first and last chance at sometimes life saving medical care. For you, we’re a member of the endless and faceless masses streaming through the doors. Sometimes we are delivered broken and bleeding on stretchers. Many more walk through the doors afraid of the unknown and in need of compassion, understanding and care. Some of us come to you with no visible wounds but are no less broken. We can be the most difficult to deal with in part because our problems are mental and invisible to the naked eye.
I understand. I get it. It’s easy to point the finger and tell us to “just get over ourselves.” We wish we could, trust me. I hope you never know what it’s like. I hope you never experience the fear, self loathing and shame that accompanies mental illness. It isn’t easy. When you break a leg, the injury is there for everyone to see and people offer to help without being asked. With mental illness, there isn’t anything tangible to grab hold of. People just expect you to snap out of it. Every single day is a new struggle, and sometimes we wake up with disappointment foremost on our minds. I hope you never know what it’s like to open your eyes and be angry that you lived through the night.
I am that poor girl, the one you restrained, injected and humiliated. I’ve never been to the ER in a crisis situation, but I have been awfully close to pulling the trigger and ending my own life. So close in fact, that I know I dislike the taste of gunpowder. I sit here in my home in awe of her strength and resilience. Asking for help when your mind has forsaken you is relinquishing control and admitting failure. It’s knowing you can’t control that which ultimately controls you and learning to accept it. What that young woman did was an act of incredible bravery and you stole that away from her. You and your medical team took a cry for help and turned it into a degrading experience, ripping away her dignity in a way that left her exposed and beaten.
There needs to be a better way to handle people with mental health problems. The burden shouldn’t keep falling on emergency room staff, police officers and ambulance crews. We as a nation are doing a terrible disservice to a significant portion of our population by continuing our current course. Until we have more 24 hour intake centers and better training and understanding, you are our only hope. Next time look for an opportunity to deescalate the situation. After all, we aren’t in our right mind. Try to remember that the next time you expect better behavior and logic from us.
I hope you don’t see this as a personal attack. I couldn’t do your job and I know it. Life hasn’t given me the patience or compassion necessary to see what you see every day and still carry on. A requirement of your job though is to be able to do that day in and day out. I know it’s an unimaginably difficult and thankless job. I’m sorry that it has to be that way. You and nurses like you deserve so much more. Unfortunately, that is just the way it is. ER nurses like you see us at our very worst but you know what? We still deserve dignity, patience and compassion and what you did provided neither. I don’t blame you, but the situation should never have happened. Drop the charges, let it go and chalk it up to a lesson learned for everyone.