Treatment at Ontario mental health facility was ‘torture’, judge finds

A brand-new facility aimed at helping people with mental health and substance use issues opened in Calgary.
A brand-new facility aimed at helping people with mental health and substance use issues opened in Calgary. Global News / File

An Ontario court has ruled that a provincial mental health facility ran therapeutic programs for years that amounted to torture for the patients involved.

Justice Paul Perell’s ruling came in the midst of a lengthy lawsuit filed by past and present residents of the Oak Ridge division of the Penetang Psychiatric Hospital in Penetanguishene, Ont., that alleges patients were gravely mistreated.

Perell says three programs at the hospital that involved the forced administration of drugs, physical restraint and sleep deprivation, amounted to both physical and mental torture.

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Two doctors and the province of Ontario, who are defendants in the suit, argued that the programs at the heart of the lawsuit fell outside the statute of limitations and could not be the subject of a court proceeding.

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Perell dismissed that claim in his June 1 ruling, but said the plaintiffs now need to establish whether or not they were harmed by programs run at Oak Ridge between 1966 and 1983.

None of the lawyers involved in the case immediately responded to requests for comment.

In his ruling, Perell outlined the various premises of the three programs used to treat many patients who had been accused of serious crimes such as rape and murder.

They were developed at Oak Ridge and administered in part by Dr. Elliott Thompson Barker and Dr. Gary Maier, the two psychiatrists named as plaintiffs in the suit, the ruling said.

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Defence Disruptive Therapy (DDT) involved forcibly giving patients hallucinogenic and delirium-producing drugs in order to break down the patients’ defence mechanisms and force them to confront their abnormal behaviour, Perell wrote.

The Motivation, Attitude, Participation Program (MAPP) involved forcing patients to complete 14 days of perfect behaviour, including adhering to rules about “unauthorized talking or movement,” he wrote.

One component of that program involved forcing patients to sit on a bare floor with hands cuffed and only allowing them to move four times within four hours in a confined space of three square feet. Failure to comply could result in forced sedation or being placed in solitary confinement, Perell noted.

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The third initiative, called the Capsule Program, involved chaining up to seven people together in a room, stripping them naked, and keeping them in that state for days at a time, Perell said.

The room was continuously lit and featured holes in the walls through which occupants were fed only liquid foods through straws. Patients were kept under constant surveillance and often given hallucinogenic drugs against their will, Perell said.

“The three programs designed by Dr. Barker and implemented by the doctors and other employees of Oak Ridge — even if designed and implemented in good faith and even if the programs could be proven to be in some way therapeutic — were torture and a degradation of human dignity,” Perell wrote in his decision.

“It is an inexcusable breach of fiduciary duty for a physician to torture a patient.”

Plaintiffs alleged a breach of fiduciary duty when they first launched the suit in 2000, and Perell said that particular claim was not beyond the statute of limitations at that time.

As a result, Perell dismissed the defence’s position that the plaintiff’s claims fell outside of the statute of limitations.

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He did, however, order a trial or other motions to “prove victimization, harm, causation of harm and to quantify the individual plaintiffs’ damages, if any” for the 31 plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

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No date has yet been set for this next step, and it is not known whether the defendants plan to appeal Perell’s ruling.

Perell conceded that the doctors were likely running programs based on accepted medical practices of the day, but said that argument still could not excuse what was done to Oak Ridge patients.

“I appreciate that apart from professional renown and advancement, there was no self-serving gratification for the defendant physicians at the expense of the plaintiffs,” he wrote.

“But, in my opinion, that does not negate the circumstance that it is a breach of a physician’s ethical duty to physically and mentally torture his patients even if the physician’s decisions are based on what the medical profession at the time counts for treatment for the mentally ill.”

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