When psychiatric services suck donkey balls (compared to other disability services).


This is my first post for BADD this year — Blogging Against Disablism Day.  Hopefully there will be others to follow.

So these days, in the USA and many other countries, different categories of disabled adults get different services that are supposed to help us live outside of institutions.  One kind of services is developmental disability services.   Another is physical disability services.  Another is psychiatric disability services.  Since the differences often have more to do with accidents of history, who gets to classify what groups of people, and so on, I’m not going to try to explain the differences here.  I’m also going to use a lot of medical language, because if I try to describe things as they are, I’ll get bogged down in language and never finish the post.  So please don’t take this post as agreement with the conceptions of disability laid down by service systems and professionals.  I’m just using their ideas for convenience.  As well, I’m speaking in generalizations.  Of course there are exceptions on all sides of this.  It’s just striking how consistently psychiatric services work a certain way, when other services either don’t work that way at all, or vary in how they work.  Psychiatric services stand out as particularly bad in this regard.

If you get DD or physical disability services, there’s a pretty good chance that a large part of your services will involve either helping you do things you can’t do (or can’t do without creating serious problems for yourself), helping you learn how to do things you can’t yet do but are within your grasp for learning, or some combination of the two.

A lot of times these tasks are broken down into ADLs (Activities of Daily Living) and IADLs (Instrumental Activities of Daily Living).  Here’s an example of how such things are often broken down:

ADLs:  Bathing, Dressing, Grooming, Mouth care, Toileting, Transferring Bed/Chair, Walking, Climbing stairs, Eating.

IADLs:  Shopping, Cooking, Managing medications, Using the phone and looking up numbers, Doing housework, Doing housework, Doing laundry, Driving or using public transportation, Using finances.

These definitions were taken from the Senior Planning Services website, in a PDF file titled ADL / IADL Checklist.  That’s just one definition.  Other lists might be longer, or shorter, or more descriptive than this one.  But it gets the idea across.

The Oregon Department of Human Services published a document that describes common ways how a person with a developmental disability might be supported in accomplishing ADLs and IADLs:

Assistance with ADLs, IADLs, and health-related tasks may include cueing, monitoring, reassurance, redirection, set-up, hands- on, or standby assistance. Assistance may be provided through human assistance or the use of electronic devices or other assistive devices. Assistance may also require verbal reminding to complete IADL tasks.

(A) “Cueing” means giving verbal, audio, or visual clues during an activity to help an individual complete the activity without hands-on assistance.

(B) “Hands-on” means a provider physically performs all or parts of an activity because an individual is unable to do so.

(C) “Monitoring” means a provider observes an individual to determine if assistance is needed.

(D) “Reassurance” means to offer an individual encouragement and support.

(E) “Redirection” means to divert an individual to another more appropriate activity.

(F) “Set-up” means the preparation, cleaning, and maintenance of personal effects, supplies, assistive devices, or equipment so that an individual may perform an activity.

(G) “Stand-by” means a provider is at the side of an individual ready to step in and take over the task if the individual is unable to complete the task independently.

That gives a pretty good overview of how disability services are supposed to work:  There are things we can’t do, or can’t do without assistance, or can’t do without being so drained afterwards that more important activities fall by the wayside.  Again, there are many other ways that we can be helped, but this gives you a good overview.

Generally, the above is what you’ll see when you’re getting services based in the DD (developmental disability) system, or the physical disability (sometimes just “general disability”, since physical is assumed the default by a lot of people) system:  You have trouble doing ADLs, IADLs, or other activities that you need or want to do.  So someone either helps you learn to do them, or helps you do them.  The kind and amount of assistance may be the same every day, or may vary day to day.  But the fact that you’re getting this assistance, does not usually change once you’ve been deemed to need it on a long-term basis.

Not so with psychiatric disability.  And here we come to the main point of my post.

Like developmental and physical disabilities, psychiatric disabilities can come with problems that make it difficult to do ordinary daily living activities.

The one that’s most obvious to me, especially through knowing people with serious problems in this area, is something referred to as avolition.  Even if you’ve never heard the technical term avolition before, you’re likely to find this description familiar from other areas of life.  Here is part of Wikipedia’s description of avolition (bolding mine, for emphasis):

Avolition, as a symptom of various forms of psychopathology, is the decrease in the motivation to initiate and perform self-directed purposeful activities. Such activities that appear to be neglected usually include routine activities, including hobbies, going to work and/or school, andmost notably, engaging in social activities. A person experiencing avolition may stay at home for long periods of time, rather than seeking out work or peer relations.

People with avolition often want to complete certain tasks but lack the ability to initiate behaviours necessary to complete them. Avolition is most commonly seen as a symptom of some other disorder, but might be considered a primary clinical disturbance of itself (or as a coexisting second disorder) related to disorders of diminished motivation. In 2006, avolition was identified as a negative symptom of schizophrenia by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and have been observed in patients with bipolar disorder as well as resulting from trauma.


Regarding schizophrenia, the American Psychiatric Association reported in 2013 that there currently are “no treatments with proven efficacy forprimary negative symptoms” (such as avolition).

When autistic people experience something that looks nearly identical to avolition, it’s likely that it will be referred to as executive dysfunction, inertia, or catatonia.  While people often mistake catatonia for a psychiatric term, it was originally a neurological term.  This is reflected in the fact that some forms of movement disorder are described as involving catatonia, where other similar movement disorders are referred to as parkinson-like in nature.  In other words, you can have the exact same traits for the exact same reasons, and what medical label gets used will depend entirely on whose territory you’re under: neurology, psychiatry, or developmental disability.  The problems may be more identical than you’d imagine.

But that’s not really the point.

The point is what happens when you have problems initiating and completing tasks as a part of the DD or physical disability systems, versus when you have the same or similar problems initiating or completing tasks as a part of the psychiatric system.  Because if you’re getting psychiatric services in your own house, I can tell you they’re highly unlikely to look anything near the above quote from the Oregon Department of Human Services.

People getting psych services in their own home don’t tend to have anywhere near as much support as other disabled people do, in getting things done that you can’t do for yourself. You’ll likely be referred for therapy and medications, even though there is no therapy or medication that gets rid of avolition very often at all.

Doing that?  Is the equivalent of, if I applied for a Hoyer lift for my myasthenic syndrome, and then instead got a referral to a neurologist and a prescription for some pyridostigmine.  Mind you, this is even assuming that therapy and meds are going to work for avolition anywhere near the level that a neurologist’s referral and a pyridostigmine prescription will help someone with myasthenia.  But even presuming they are, they’re simply not going to be sufficient to solve all the problems of avolition.

And even if therapy and meds somehow worked in the long term?  While the person was waiting to see if the worked, they’d still need services to help them get through the day in the meantime.  Avolition can result in a total standstill of daily living skills — not just a failure to socialize, but a failure to eat enough, drink enough, keep a job, any number of things.

And avolition is not the only thing that can affect people in the psychiatric system and their ability to take care of themselves.  There’s a kind of inertia that goes with depression — its different from, say, autistic inertia, but has some of the same effects in terms of rendering it difficult to move and do things.  (One of the big differences is that the depressive kind of inertia often goes along with feelings like “I’m not worth getting out of bed for” that autistic inertia generally doesn’t have.)

Worse than just leaving its clients in a state of constant neglect, the psychiatric service system often uses the excuse that doing this is for people’s own good.  After all, the saying goes, if you just let a crazy person get away with being crazy, they’ll never learn to be responsible adult citizens.  Even if over and over there’s proof that leaving people to their own devices only leads to neglect and resulting suffering.  But there’s a longstanding belief that psychiatric patients are basically like children who need the firm guiding hand and tough love that only a parent can provide.  Yes, this belief is wrong.  Yes, it’s disgusting.  Yes, it’s responsible for suffering, poverty, homelessness, and death when taken to an extreme.  And it often is.  Taken to an extreme, that is.

The way I see it, it shouldn’t matter whether your inability to get the housework done is because you’re paralyzed, because you’ve got a chronic illness, because of a cognitive disability, because of terrifying hallucinations, because you’re depressed and feel worthless and drained of all energy, because you’ve got a movement disorder, or any combination of these and other things.  If you need the help, you need the help.  People shouldn’t be cut off from such help just because, through accidents of both personal and societal history, they happen to get psychiatric services rather than some other kind of disability services.  Human beings are interdependent.  That’s how every human culture has always worked.  It’s time we started acting like it.


8 responses »

  1. Thank you for contributing to Blogging Against Disablism Day once again. I hope you’re able to publish the other posts you wanted to – any time in the next few days would be absolutely fine.

    In the UK, we have similar issues with psychiatric (or as you describe, conditions which end up being classed that way) and physical impairments being treated very differently, despite laws which state there should be no difference. It is shocking the extent to which very old very broken stereotypes about people with psychiatric conditions continue to effect (and damage) lives.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this. I have been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness that’s basically seen as learned helplessness (dependent personality disorder). Then I am blind and probably autistic (was diagnosed several times but my current psychologist refuses to accept this). My psychologist refses to even acknowledge the impairments my blindness causes. Not that it matters, since like you say,it shouldn’t matter why I have the impairments if I have them. However, it’s my experience that it does matter to the powers that be.

  3. It’s a total joke that psychiatric ‘services’ are supposed to be covered by medical insurance in the same way as other medical services.

    You fear getting labeled – and having that get in your way for the rest of your life – when what you needed was some practical help until you can cope by yourself.

    And it may happen before you realize what’s happening.

    If they can label you, they can get rid of you – and stop giving you services. Example of that, even for physical problems: a friend had no help from her primary or pain doctors, and it got so bad she ended up in the ER. Now she’s labeled as ‘drug seeking’ – and full of restrictions for her REGULAR pain meds.

    Officious beaucracies can’t wait to put you in a box, close the lid, and tape it shut. Literally or figuratively.

    I’m fighting something similar – a-volition (no volition) is a good name for it – that was caused by a drug I don’t want to be on, and was fortunately able to dump. I’m am NOT going to see a therapist who ‘understands these things’ just to deal with what THEY caused. I’ll wait, do it myself, read and journal and hope that’s enough.

    I used to think psychiatric services were meant to help us; I no longer do.

    Great post. You have good insight.

  4. I’m commenting a year late. I deal with autism and mental health issues. I’ve never heard of avolition. I do deal with executive functions issue, depression that leads to loss of motivation and dissociation. I also trained to be a peer specialist. In that role, we are suppose to provide various levels of support. We use ‘support’ and not ‘help’ because the latter means ‘do for’ and our task is to allow the person the chance to do for themselves. If they can’t, we try to find out why. We can then support by being with someone, by getting needed info, by coaching, by doing a task for someone but this is not what we do first. And the hope is that the person can learn to do it themself. We also try to alleviate anxiety or other issues by allow the person to talk about what is bothering them and that can lead to better mental functioning. If someone can’t do something, there is a reason that might be mental health related and its important to not just do something for someone as the first option.

  5. Thank you thank you thank you! I have never been able to articulate this, although I have seen it’s cruelty for 30 years, and now more recently with my own daughter.

  6. Pingback: But there’s so many different disabilities, trying to be aware and inclusive of all of them is just too haaaaard. – Tree of Life

  7. Kevix: I’m not really good at diplomacy today and I’m sorry about that. But this attitude towards other people with psych disabilities seems a bit patronizing. There’s lots of reasons people can’t do things, and walking in with the attitude that if it’s for psych reasons there must be a way to solve it other than helping them do it, is… odd, to me. Like sure, make sure it isn’t they just don’t know how to do it, or whatever, but there’s ways to do that without going in with the assumption that you’re gonna do something for someone the way you think is best for them and they don’t actually know what’s best for them, or whatever. Don’t know quite how to phrase it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s