(Editorial) Government action to prevent abuse of mentally ill people is overdue but welcome

A doctor on duty at a psychiatric hospital in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, tries to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a patient who was found dead after being restrained and tied to a bed in January 2022. A nurse and a medic can be seen unfastening the patient’s seatbelt. (Surveillance footage)

The Korean government said it will investigate whether the isolation and immobilization of patients is being handled properly by psychiatric hospitals in the country. The move follows a macabre report in Hankyoreh of a patient who died after being strapped to a bed for more than 250 hours at a hospital in Chuncheon.

It is no news that the coercive measures taken against patients in psychiatric hospitals can involve life-threatening levels of violence. But until Hankyoreh addressed the issue, the government did not even keep any basic data on isolation and immobilization in these hospitals. In such circumstances, how could families entrust their loved ones to the tender care of a psychiatric ward?

The accounts of the events in Hankyoreh are so shocking that it is hard to believe that something like this could have happened in a civilized society.

In January 2022, a 45-year-old patient at a psychiatric hospital in Chuncheon died after being left in solitary confinement for 251 hours and 50 minutes with his hands, feet and chest restrained.

Even more shocking was the behavior of the hospital staff after the patient’s death. They moved the body to a cold store in a morgue about 23 kilometers away without asking the family for permission, and only informed them of the death two hours later.

These measures are hard to reconcile with any idea of ​​common sense. And yet, when police were sent to investigate the patient’s death, they concluded only three and a half hours later that the patient had died from his condition.

The grieving family filed a complaint against hospital staff for manslaughter, but police reportedly dropped the case without charging them.

Isolation and immobilization must be used according to strict guidelines due to the potentially fatal consequences for patients. Adult immobilization (in Korea, persons 19 years of age and older) is limited to four hours per incident and may not exceed eight consecutive hours without the consent of a specialist after personal evaluation.

But these rules were completely ignored by the hospital in question. The hospital staff ignored the patient’s complaints of pain, which continued until the moment of death.

This wasn’t the first patient to die from isolation and restraint in a psychiatric hospital. In 2005, a 50-year-old patient died after 124 hours of continuous restraint. In 2013, a 70-year-old patient died after 17 hours of restraint. And in 2017, a 20-year-old patient died after 35 hours of restraint, sparking public outrage.

Considering that over the past five years (2019-2023), the Korean National Human Rights Commission has received 463 complaints regarding solitary confinement and immobilization, there are likely many more similar incidents that are going unnoticed.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Health and Social Care promised to make systemic changes and conduct a fact-finding investigation to ensure similar incidents do not occur. We can only hope that appropriate measures will finally be taken, however late they may be.

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