Friday, November 16, 2007

Trouble in Serbia

A report released this week by Mental Disability Rights International demonstrates that children and adults in Serbian psychiatric facilities are living in squalid and unhealthy conditions, with patients frequently physically restrained for years at a time, often in their own excrement. With poor sanitation and common communicable diseases inadequately controlled, patients within the Serbian psychiatric healthcare system are suffering in a potentially unparalleled manner. Taking into consideration the extent to which American psychiatric patients and consumers of mental health services feel rightfully disenfranchised within our system here in the US, the atrociousness of care in Serbian facilities is "tantamount to torture" according to the MDRI report.

Although the Serbian government was quick to point out the gains which the country has made in the care of the psychiatrically disabled since 2000, there is no denying the extent of the abuse and neglect being perpetrated in a country vying for entrance into the European Union. To quote from the MDRI website:

" 'These are Serbia's most vulnerable citizens. Thousands confined to institutions are subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and abuse. Children and adults tied down and restrained over a lifetime is dangerous and painful treatment tantamount to torture - clear violations of the European Convention on Human Rights,' said Attorney Eric Rosenthal, Executive Director of MDRI and an expert on human rights law. ' We call on the government of Serbia to stop these abuses immediately and to respect the human rights of all people with disabilities,' concluded Rosenthal."

Reports by various news organizations all point to the documented facts that children and adults under care in Serbian facilities have suffered---and continue to suffer---greatly under the current system of care.

Watching the video footage from the MDRI website (not for the faint of heart) drives home the reality not fully expressed in words: physical restraints, straight jackets, overcrowding, understaffing, lack of proper sanitation and hygiene, lack of positive stimulation, obvious neglect and barbaric practices, all underscore a nightmarish reality reminiscent of Orwell's and Dickens' worst visions of humanity gone wrong.

Working with vulnerable populations here in the US, one realizes that in many poorer countries where healthcare is decades behind in development, nightmare scenarios still reign. The cynic might ask why we should even worry about disabled children in a country where we have little economic interest. I would respond that how the vulnerable are treated anywhere in the world is a reflection on humanity as a whole, and as the world itself grows ever smaller, our neighbor's plight is never truly separate from our own. If the command to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" still holds any meaning, then a child in Serbia is no less in need of respect, dignity and love than children everywhere. The MDRI report is an important document, and one would hope that its effects will ripple far beyond the borders of Serbia, stimulating self-reflective assessment of the care of vulnerable people everywhere.

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