New NSW mental health plan shows vital role for torture prevention treaty

Today’s release of new mental health guidelines by the NSW Government show the importance of a systemic approach to preventing violence and abuse of people with disability.

“People with disability have a right to be free of violence in all our institutions, including when they are seeking the medical care they need in hospitals,” said Ms Therese Sands, Co-CEO of People with Disability Australia.

“Getting medical treatment should never involve the terrible conditions we’ve seen in many mental health facilities across NSW, where people with disability are abused, put into isolation and restrained.”

The new NSW Health plan follows from the recommendations of a 2017 review into the use of restrictive practices in many mental health facilities in NSW, after the death of Miriam Merten. The review acknowledged that for many people with disability, mental health facilities are often places where they have experienced restraint and isolation. It calls for systemic change, including the involvement of people with disability as experts and peer workers.

“People with disability need to be at the heart of developing systems that will prevent violence and abuse. This new NSW plan is a good first step, and must be used in collaboration with the framework offered by the Optional Protocol to the Torture Convention to prevent torture and ill-treatment in places of detention,” said Ms Sands.

The Australian Government ratified OPCAT, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in December 2017.

“New peer reviewed research, that we have been part of, recently published in the latest Australian Journal of Human Rights, looks at whether OPCAT could give us the tools we need to stop the appalling rates of violence against people with disability,” said Ms Sands.

One of the requirements of the Optional Protocol involves the creation of a ‘National Preventive Mechanism’ (NPM), which will be overseen by the Commonwealth Ombudsman. This creates a further layer of oversight by performing regular monitoring visits to assess risks of torture and ill-treatment in places of detention (such as mental health facilities).

“It will be important to make sure that people with disability are involved in how this National Preventive Mechanism is set up so that all the different places where people with disability can experience this abuse are included,” said Ms Sands.

“We are subject to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment at rates far higher than people without disability. This research shows that the preventive mechanism required by OPCAT cannot ignore people with disability or mark them off as a ‘special’ or ‘separate’ matter. This is something that the Federal Government needs to urgently act on, so that State and Territory Governments can include OPCAT in their plans to prevent abuse and violence against people with disability. Alongside our colleagues at Disabled People’s Organisations Australia, we have prepared a position paper that outlines these requirements.”

According to one of the contributing authors, Dr Piers Gooding at the Melbourne Social Equity Institute, University of Melbourne, “There is a risk that the National Preventive Mechanism will fail to focus on the places where many people with disability experience ill-treatment, like hospitals and residential facilities.

“This new plan from the NSW Government needs to be looked at in context with the planned implementation of OPCAT, and how the preventive mechanism being set up will contribute to preventing abuse of people with disability.”

PWDA partnered with academics and advocates from across Australia to write the research paper, including the University of Sydney, Monash University, RMIT University, the University of Technology Sydney, the Queensland Advocacy Incorporated and the University of Melbourne. The report was supported by a grant from the Sydney Social Justice Network.

For more information, please see: A disability aware approach to torture prevention? Australian OPCAT ratification and improved protections for people with disability and DPO Australia’s Position Paper: Disability Inclusive National Preventive Mechanism.