Shocking case of institutionalized patient highlights inhumane practices in Czech mental homes

The mental home in Opava

An investigative team at Czech Radio has unveiled the shocking story of a young woman who was held in mechanical restraint in a mental home in Opava for a period of twelve years. Her fate has once again highlighted the inhumane conditions in many Czech psychiatric institutions and the urgent need for reform.

“The patient is unstrapped once in two or three days so that she can be washed by staff. On a daily basis, she is changed and fed strapped to the bed. She is in permanent isolation and has no contact with other patients. We are of the opinion that this treatment qualifies as torture or, to put it mildly, as inhumane treatment.”

Photo: Anna Košlerová,  Czech Radio

An excerpt there from a report written by a member of the Health Ministry’s inspection team which visited the mental home in Opava where they came upon the autistic young woman by accident. For years her miserable existence in the mental home remained undetected, despite inspections from the ministry and the Ombudsman’s office. Moreover, after the inspection team discovered her and reported the case, the report was kept under wraps for four years and no one filed a complaint to the police. Following criticism from the inspection team the young woman was released from mechanical restrain, but remains institutionalized and without appropriate redress.

Despite widespread awareness of the sorry state of the country’s psychiatric institutions the revelation has sent shockwaves around the country with many people asking themselves how many others might be suffering a similar fate. Those in top ministry posts at the time when the report from the Opava mental home was filed, claim they never saw it and the head of the National Institute for Mental Health Petr Winker responded by saying he was certain that shocking as this was, it was almost certainly an isolated case.

The mental home in Opava | Photo: Anna Košlerová,  Czech Radio

However, under pressure from Czech Radio’s investigative team, the Health Ministry soon revealed 18 reports of similar abuse registered during inspections in 2018. All of them contained information confirming widespread use of isolation, mechanical restraint, and overmedication in dealing with disturbed mental patients, but also used as punishment for disobedience or misconduct.

The mental home in Opava | Photo: Anna Košlerová,  Czech Radio

A member of the ministry’s inspection team who wished to remain in anonymity, said the conditions is some of the institutions they visited were atrocious.

“In the isolation cell, there was a bucket instead of a toilet. The building itself and the interiors were in a state that had nothing in common with medicine in the 21st century.”

Inspections conducted in mental homes in Dobřany and Šternberg revealed inadequate conditions and care including, 7-13 patients per room, dirty toilets and no toilet paper, inability to adjust the temperature of the water in the showers, overuse of isolation and restraint and rude behaviour on the part of the staff.

The mental home in Dobřany | Photo: Jana Kosová,  Czech Radio

The facilities’ own records show that the number of cases in which isolation and mechanical restraint were used has risen significantly since 2018. The head of the mental home in Dobřany Petr Žižka denies overuse of the practice.

“It varies from case to case. When a patient is a threat to themselves or others they are placed in isolation. For an hour, several hours or until the next day.”

According to the Health Ministry, investments are being made to reconstruct mental health facilities and improve conditions for patients. Staff are also being trained in alternative methods to calm down disturbed or aggressive patients.

The mental home in Šternberk | Photo: ČT24

The case has drawn widespread concern and Validity, an international NGO working to secure equality, inclusion and justice for people with mental disabilities, has renewed its calls for reform of the mental health system in Czechia and for rigorous independent monitoring to ensure that cases of similar abuse are exposed, punished and that victims obtain appropriate redress.

Authors: Daniela Lazarová , Jana Karasová
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