The incident exemplifies the human rights abuses and coercive practices found in psychiatric hospitals, as stated in reports by the World Health Organization.
A homeless man arrested for a crime he didn’t commit was locked up in a psychiatric hospital for more than two years and prescribed large amounts of psychiatric drugs, according to a petition recently filed in court to clear the man’s record.
His assertions that the institution had locked up the wrong man were used by staff to label him as delusional and to justify heavily drugging him against his will, the petition states.
Abusive practices like this were rejected by the World Health Organization (WHO) in a series of reports issued in June, which were critical of “an entrenched overreliance on the biomedical model,” in which the predominant focus is on diagnosis and psychiatric drugs.
WHO is calling for an end to all coercive mental health practices, which it says are used “despite the lack of evidence that they offer any benefits, and the significant evidence that they lead to physical and psychological harm and even death.”
WHO’s rejection of nonconsensual mental health treatment echoes the long-time advocacy of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) to end coercive and harmful psychiatric practices and to restore human rights and dignity to the field of mental health.
“People subjected to coercive practices report feelings of dehumanization, disempowerment and being disrespected,” WHO states in its reports. “Many experience it as a form of trauma or re-traumatization leading to a worsening of their condition and increased experiences of distress.”
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also contains the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as the right to freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse, both of which prohibit coercive practices, such as the forced administering of psychotropic drugs.
The man wrongfully institutionalized, Joshua Spriestersbach, was arrested in Hawaii in 2017 when police mistook him for a man who was wanted on charges stemming from a 2006 drug case.
After telling a psychiatrist he did not understand what he was being charged with, Spriestersbach was determined to be incompetent to proceed to trial and was committed instead to the Hawaii State Hospital.
Once there, the more Spriestersbach insisted on his innocence, “the more he was declared delusional and psychotic by the [Hawaii State Hospital] staff and doctors and heavily medicated,” the petition states.
When he protested over being forced to attend group sessions for drug users, staff allegedly responded by giving him antipsychotic drugs that made him drool and struggle to walk.
The misidentification was finally confirmed when Spriestersbach’s birth certificate was obtained in November 2019.
He continued to be held at the psychiatric facility until quietly released to a homeless shelter with fifty cents in his pocket in January 2020. He had been wrongly institutionalized and drugged for two years and eight months.
The homeless shelter contacted his family, and his sister brought him to her home. Recalling seeing him at the airport, she said, “His shirt was wet from drool, and he was shuffling his feet. He was just so medicated.”
CCHR’s co-founder, the late Thomas Szasz, M.D., a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry, is considered by many scholars to be the most authoritative critic of modern psychiatry, with its coercive practices and damaging drugs.
Years ahead of the WHO reports, Dr. Szasz advocated advocated an end to forced psychiatric treatment, writing: “The task we set ourselves – to combat psychiatric coercion – is important. It is a noble task in the pursuit of which we must, regardless of obstacles, persevere. Our conscience commands that we do no less.”
As a human rights organization and mental health industry watchdog, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights has exposed and campaigned tirelessly against psychiatric treatments given without consent, including forced drugging, restraints, and involuntary electroshock. CCHR’s Mental Health Declaration of Human Rights enumerates the rights we believe each individual is entitled to in the mental health system.