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Free Sara Arenson

03:33 pm - Statement August 11, 2004
August 11, 2004
St. Boniface Hospital
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
On the evening of Wednesday, August 4, Sara Arenson, a twenty-five year old performing artist, student and activist, was involuntarily detained in the psychiatric ward of the St. Boniface General Hospital in Winnipeg. Sara was supposedly suffering a ?mixed manic? episode, according to an examining psychiatrist, although she believes that mental illness is simply a label for spontaneous personal expression that those in power in our society find disturbing.

At the time of her confinement, Sara had been out walking in downtown Winnipeg dreaming up unusual ideas about science and spirituality, asking questions of everyone she met, and laughing, crying, and chatting with the hungry and the poor. Because she is a naturally spontaneous, frank, emotionally expressive and articulate person, and had decided that evening to start asserting herself in ways she never had before, friends and a psychiatrist thought she was in trouble and in need of "treatment".

The "treatment" that Sara has received has consisted of incarceration in a psychiatric facility, where she is being coercively drugged with Risperidone, a powerful "atypical antipsychotic" whose common side effects include weight gain, dizziness, sleeplessness, racing heartbeat, restlessness, and anxiety. Sara is afraid to refuse this "medication", despite the fact that when she was brought in no blood tests were performed indicating any sort of biochemical abnormality in her brain or elsewhere (since then, blood work has been performed and she has been deemed physically healthy except for some systemic yeast). She is afraid to refuse "medication" because after her initial psychiatric interview, she was not allowed to go home, but forcibly restrained with an injection and brought into the psychiatric ward. Now she does not want to risk being injected with slower releasing forms of antipsychotic drugs, because she has a fear of needles and wants to minimize the amount of drug in her bloodstream.

Sara is a highly intelligent, charming, high-energy, by turns sweet and sarcastic, sometimes sad and sometimes happy person " in other words, just like everyone else on this planet. She is a writer with a Winnipeg Arts Council Grant and her first amateur production contract under her belt, an actor studying theatre at the University of Winnipeg, a vocal and vociferous vegan, an occasional gardener, and she is interested in yoga, meditation, science, music, natural healing, and anti-capitalist social activism. Although she is young and her arts career is only beginning, she is willing to risk her good name by publicly announcing the conditions of her detainment if this is the only way that she can end a practice that she finds absolutely immoral and unjustifiable in a democracy.

Sara is not an atypical psychiatric patient. Many are emotionally expressive and intelligent, with a belief in a spiritual realm that our dominant rationalistic society dismisses as fantasy and delusion. In fact, this is the second time that Sara has been locked up in the past two and a half years, indicating just how easy it is for this kind of situation to arise.

The first time, March/April 2002, she was under extreme stress because her father was in hospital dying from congestive heart failure, and the doctors failed to recognize her father's illness as a precipitating factor in her desperate journey for meaning. Since then, her father has passed away, and she has had to come to terms with his loss while coping with the trauma inflicted by her initial "treatment" at the Health Sciences Centre. Yoga, meditation, healthful eating, close friendships, acting classes, a writing mentorship and intensive journal-writing have saved her from the terrible loss of hope and self-esteem that followed her first incarceration. "I absolutely, positively did not feel helped by that experience," says Sara. "I was bullied as a child, and it was actually reminiscent of the same process, basically being called a name " "bipolar" just means that someone else thinks that you get too happy and too sad. Well, my emotions are my emotions, and I have every right to feel and express them in all their intensity!" Sara is a passionate person who refuses to give up the full spectrum of feeling, from joy to agony.

Involuntary psychiatric detainment is a form of incarceration. Sara is not allowed to leave the psychiatric facility and its outdoor patio unless accompanied by a member of staff or her family, and she has had to be "well-behaved" , i.e. not to argue too vehemently, not to be rude or say swear words to staff members, and not to threaten violence, in order to earn this "pass" time. She is unable to concentrate on her playwriting due to duress and the effects of the psychotropic drugs she is taking.

Sara does not feel that she deserves the type of "treatment" she is receiving. Although doctors and nurses continually argue with her that she is mentally ill and that her denial of her illness indicates a "lack of insight", she has thoroughly researched the subject of mental illness in the past two years and believes it to be an elaborate myth or social ritual (see, for example, books by Eliott Valenstein and Peter Breggin). She believes that her sin is simply daring to be herself in public, and that she is being called medically deviant because our society no longer condones the concept of treatment for moral deviance.

According to the Manitoba Mental Health Act, a person may legally be treated against his or her will in a psychiatric ward for up to three weeks, for the simple crime of being strange around others. No psychiatrist can predict with any certainty who will be dangerous and who won't be. Studies have shown how ineffective such predictions have proven in the past. Furthermore, it does not seem constitutional to lock someone up for a potential crime; we know that we are living in a sham democracy when dissidents are medicalized for speaking their minds, or, in Sara's case, laughing and crying their minds without the aid of illegal drugs or alcohol.

Since when has creative emotional expression and getting to know people constituted mental disease? For as long as the medical establishment has been in cahoots with the powers of oppression and injustice. EVERY HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST MUST TAKE AN IMMEDIATE INTEREST IN SARA'S CASE, BECAUSE IT AFFECTS US ALL. Reember what happened in the Second World War to the insane and disabled, and recall that the first step in extermination of differences is isolating and marginalizing certain people for their skin colour, beliefs or behaviour. Sara is also Jewish, and as a child she used to spend time imagining what she would have said to the SS to try to convince them that she was a human being before they shot her. Her present situation is not entirely dissimilar to that terrible fantasy. Evil is evil, even when cloaked in the shiniest rhetoric of health and fitness.

What does Sara have to say about her situation? "It's hard for me to not feel personally persecuted right now, but I'm just trying to persevere, trying to be myself as best I can with the drugs and confinement and everything. These aren't bad people. They honestly think that they're helping me and the other patients, who, I've discovered, are awfully hurt, sensitive, and perceptive people who are being turned into zombies by all the drugs that are being forced into them. Several men have even told me about dizziness and fainting from the so-called "medications", and one slightly overweight woman said she was taunted for wanting a second piece of veal for dinner. Is this the right way to help people in trouble? We need to let the rest of society know that the mental health system is rife with such human rights abuses, they are just built right into the system that defines people as either "normal" or "sick".?

Sara does not know when she will be leaving the St. Boniface General Hospital, since she will not admit under any circumstances to having a "mental illness", although she does tell us that she is being treated well enough considering the situation. The staff are kind within the limits of their orders, and she is receiving proper vegan meals and her B12 supplements. Sara does not intend to give up her battle against forced psychiatric treatment, although she would never dream of taking psychiatric drugs away from those who genuinely do feel helped by them. Her battle is solely against coercive and forced "treatment" such as the kind she is enduring.

"This is a political struggle, and it's on the level of the law and administration, not individuals," says Sara, whose father Murray, now-deceased, was a lawyer who prided himself on helping working class people get the kind of legal assistance they needed. "It's the draconian nature of the Manitoba Mental Health Act that we must challenge here. That's the law that allows a person to be detained without trial or consent for up to three weeks in a psychiatric facility, just on the word of doctors who are unfamiliar with the individual's personality or temperament." She reminds us once again that she is only taking her drugs under coercion, and that they impair her thinking in a small but perceptible way (she is on a low dose of Risperidone, once in the morning and once before bed).

We ask that all concerned activists contact the people below to demand that the Manitoba Mental Health Act be radically revised. Help Sara in her battle for freedom from psychiatric oppression. If you would like to contact her, please call Michael Nerman at (204)775-2684. He will forward all messages to her. Or e-mail the Network to Free Sara, and they will try to get that to Sara, here:  reality_namer@yahoo.com.

Please write, fax or phone the following individuals to let them know exactly how you feel about this situation:

The Hon. Gary Doer
Premier of Manitoba
Room 204, Legislature Building
450 Broadway
Winnipeg, MB R3C 0V8
Phone: (204)945-3714
Fax: (204)949-1484
E-mail:  premier@leg.gov.mb.ca

Hon. David Chomiuk
Minister of Health
Province of Manitoba
Room 302, Legislature Building
450 Broadway
Winnipeg, MB R3C 0V8
Telephone: (204)945-3731
Fax: (204)945-0441
E-mail:  minhlt@leg.gov.mb.ca

Patient Relations Officer
Room A1153
St. Boniface General Hospital
409 Tache Ave.
Winnipeg, MB R2H 2A6
Telephone: (204)237-2306
E-mail:  lperrin@sbgh.mb.ca

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