Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mental health advocates fight for fresh air

Thursday, September 24, 2009
This story was published in the MetroWest Daily News print version on 9/24/09. It was not published to the paper's website.

BOSTON - Mental health advocates urged lawmakers on Wednesday to assure patients certain fundamental rights in hospitals, including regular access of fresh air during hospital stays.

“Prison inmates and even farm animals are granted fresh air under law and I believe this speaks volumes of how our population seems to be seen by society,” Jonathan Dosick, a representative of the Coalition for the Legal Rights of Persons with Disabilities, told a packed hearing before the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

Under current law, psychiatric patients have certain guaranteed rights including access to make and receive phone calls in privacy, send and receive sealed and unread mail, and receive visitors in privacy.

Absent from these rights is the right to go outdoors on a regular basis. Dosick claimed that 30 hospitals in Massachusetts, “deny access to the healing power of fresh air.”

Dosick said he had heard many stories of patients not being allowed outdoors for as long as months on end.

“From my own hospital experience, times spent outside were the times when I felt the most hope for the future,” Dosick said.

Monica Briggs, a peer facilitator at McLean Hospital, said patients she speaks with are unanimously surprised to hear that they have specific fundamental rights, but not the right to outdoor access. Briggs said she spent 60 days at a Massachusetts hospital a few years ago without any access to fresh air. When she was transferred to McLean Hospital in Belmont, she had daily access to fresh air.

“My recovery proceeded by leaps and bounds. It was night and day.”

David Matteodo, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Behavioral Health Systems, opposed the bill in its current form, saying it could create safety and cost issues for mental health facilities.

“One of our first obligations is safety,” Matteodo said, “We need to be very careful about adding a fundamental right to all 47 hospitals that people could go outside basically whenever they wanted.”

Advocates also told the committee that the law granting mental patients fundamental rights needed stricter enforcement.

“I am sad to say that rights violations continue to happen and are being reported and there is no effective means to remedy these violations in a timely manner. We are asking for an expedited procedure,” said Susan Fendell, senior attorney with Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee.

Local hospitals, Metro West Medical Center and Milford Regional Medical Center, did not return repeated phone calls for comment regarding their own fresh air access practices.

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