Like any other child, a child is like no other


When I was 13 years old, I realized I wasn’t a normal child when I was admitted to hospital the first night.

I was admitted to the paediatric ward that day. The child psychiatry unit was full at the time. My father was there to support me. Two hours before visiting time ended, a nurse told him to go. Children admitted with psychiatric disorders have different rules, so visits were limited. All the parents stayed, but he went. This is what I knew.

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I was in a completely different world. Imagine a world in which adults who are responsible for your care have unlimited power over you. When distressing behavior is considered to be misbehaviour, and is punishable with sedation. Management of our children was made easier by medication. It was clear that we all were given the same sedative. It was mixed with syrup to ensure that the little ones didn’t complain about its unpleasant taste.

It was not as strange as it seemed at first, but it soon became my world. I adapted, as children do. I was in hospital a few weeks later. I didn’t miss my parents. I stopped asking what was happening at school. I took my pills as if I had to. I also knew that I could be given a strong drug injection if I became too upset and would then be tied to my bed for a time.

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Although chemical and physical restraints pose serious human rights concerns, nobody has made much of them. Children are more used to being subordinated to authority than adults. Children are used to being coerced. I was unable to discern the difference between abuse and acceptable discipline. It was probably the same for the staff. Most of them were good people. They believed that this was the only way to help and did exactly what they were taught.

I have never returned to being a child again. I was so comfortable in my new environment that I forgot how to live in it after I got out of the hospital. I felt uncomfortable at school and at home. My peers were completely foreign to me. When children are moved into a new environment they quickly lose touch with their childhood. Not only are they a breeding ground for human rights violations but they also break down social ties. This initial exclusion can lead to isolation and exclusion for young people.

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Although mental health is changing in positive ways, many psychiatric facilities around the globe continue to train children and adults to believe that psychological distress should be treated with coercion or segregation. It is time to move beyond institutional care and establish comprehensive community-based mental healthcare support. They should promote inclusion and not isolation, and work with children, rather than against them. They must recognize that children also have rights, including the right not to be subject to violence and to take an active role in their treatment and recovery.

It is the best way to promote mental well-being than to teach the next generation that psychological distress isn’t something to hide away or suppress, but a normal part of life. Deinstitutionalization and community-based support will be key in achieving this.

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About the author

Lea Labaki, a former user and advocate of the rights of persons with psychosocial disabilities, is an advocate for their rights. She is a graduate in human rights and humanitarian actions with a master’s degree. While completing her degree, she realized the human rights implications of her experience in psychiatry. This led her to become specialized in the rights for people with disabilities. She currently resides in Belgium.