By Dr Wong Wee Nam
12th June 2008
“The incarceration of free-thinking healthy people in madhouses is spiritual murder.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize-winning author
Last week, a friend brought to my attention some newspaper articles profiling Chee Soon Juan after he was sent to jail for contempt of court. One piece suggested Dr Chee could be suffering from antisocial personality disorder. This conclusion was based on Dr Chee’s behaviour that had matched the symptoms of a condition that the writer had gleaned from a medical website.
Another piece in another newspaper, with some clever quotes here and there, even imputed that Dr Chee could be mentally challenged and might even be psychotic.
I find these articles distasteful because the tone was to run down a person while attempting to look objective.
It is one thing to disagree with a person’s ideology, his methods and his political agenda. By all means, attack his thoughts, his values and his principles. By all means, criticise him with the harshest of words on his methods and his agenda. But to suggest that a person may be mentally not right when there has never been a psychiatric examination, is the meanest thing to do, especially from journalists whom the public expect to be factual and objective. Where is the medical evidence?
I have worked in Woodbridge Hospital, a psychiatric institution, before. Before we make a diagnosis of a patient, he needs to undergo a psychiatric examination. This requires one to two hours of examination of the patient by the psychiatrist, another one to two hours of interview with his relatives, some days of observation in the ward, some psychological testing by a psychologist and a conference of doctors and psychologists before a firm diagnosis is made.
How on earth then could a lay person have the temerity to make any claim on a medical diagnosis, especially a psychiatric one?
If we can make diagnosis from medical websites, then everyone in this world would find himself or herself mentally ill.
There are implications in such damaging articles and I do not know if the writers realize this.
In my opinion, it is all right for one politician to call another politician mad. I give leeway to political polemics. However, when writers, who are supposed to be objective and factual and not combatants in the political arena, take up the hatchet to demolish someone in this manner, I sigh and ask: As a society and a nation, where are we heading?
On reading the articles, I recall the use of psychiatry to suppress political dissent in some countries where, as New York Law School Professor Michael Perlin an expert on this form of suppression put it, “a patient’s conviction that the state must be changed was seen as an indication of mental illness.”
In such places, “If you protest politically, you demonstrate by that an absence of instinct for self-preservation, or if you pursue a legal complaint against a corrupted or repressive official, that’s a sign of mental illness.”
According to Professor Perlin, throwing dissidents into mental hospitals rather than prisons has three advantages:
(1) It avoids the already limited procedural safeguards of a criminal trial.
(2) It stigmatizes people to subordinate them, and
(3) It confines dissenters indefinitely at the State’s discretion.
Fortunately we are not in such a state. So far we have not used psychiatry as a weapon to intimidate or discredit citizens who tangle with the authorities. We have not criminalised dissidents or accused them of suffering from “Reformist delusions”.
I know our psychiatrists very well. They are very ethical professionals and none of them are likely to put a psychiatric label freely on those individuals who hold strong vocal opposition to government policies. I, therefore, hope our journalists will learn to be similarly responsible.
Surely, all of us, including our journalists, do not want to see us becoming like Russia where, as recent as July last year, Larissa Arap, a Russian journalist, was declared as suffering from paranoid personality disorder and was thrown into a mental hospital for writing an article for a newspaper produced by Gary Kasparov’s dissent movement that focused on the treatment of children in psychiatric hospitals?
According to MindFreedom director David Oaks said, “If a journalist and psychiatric critic and political party leader can be locked up in a psychiatric institution, then no one is safe.”
I am not a great fan of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s methods. Many years ago, when he was about to go on his hunger strike, Mr Chiam See Tong, his SDP party chief called me and asked me to try and talk him out of his impending action. I tried but failed and I told Chiam he was too obstinate to change his mind.
He may be a stubborn person but that does not mean he is mad. Until a person is properly diagnosed, I think it is wrong to impute a psychiatric label on him. Furthermore, by using a mental illness label to character assassinate a person, we would be perpetuating the notion that a mentally ill person has the status of an outcast and is something that our can society can do without. Aren’t we trying to de-stigmatise our mental patients?
Marina Trutko a nuclear scientist, a vocal activist and public defender for several years who had also been forcibly taken and thrown into a psychiatric hospital, knows what it is like to have a psychiatric label.
“Now I have this stamp on my forehead that I am a psychiatric patient,” she said. “I will always have this medical record now. That means I cannot go to court because judges say I’m a psycho and call for an ambulance.”
I hope the articles merely reflect the thoughtlessness of the writers and nothing else. Let us also hope that imputation of mentally abnormality will not become a popular way to discredit vocal people who hold alternative views.
It’s not too late to save ourselves from dropping into the gutter. Just learn to be fair.