03/10/2014 05:43 EDT | Updated 05/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Restraints Are Overused on Patients With Mental Illness

You would think as a mental health advocate, few things would surprise me. But that couldn't be further from the truth. I am not privileged in the sense that I know inside information about the intricacies of the mental health system. In fact, less people trust me because they know if the information they provide me outrages me I'll probably speak publicly about it. They're right! Aside from my own personal experience in the mental health system much of what I advocate about comes from research, studies, stories from others, and of course traditional media.

There is a recently published story in The Toronto Sun that has pissed me off and outraged me about Ontario's use of restraint chairs on inmates with mental illness. The chairs have been in use since 2007 are designed to keep inmates from harming themselves but also in the hope of reducing assaults on jail guards.

The article suggests the chairs were introduced due to dwindling support for inmates with mental illness. Restraint devices whether chemical or physical are common in both hospitals and prisons.

While living in group homes I was exposed and actually physically restrained (though not in a chair) more times than I can count. While hospitalized I witnessed patients being chemically restrained for what appeared to be something not worth restraining somebody for. It could have been refusal to take their medication, eat, meet with their doctor, or refuse to obey basic commands.

The purpose of restraints is to confine somebody, defuse a situation and to prevent somebody from harming themselves or others. What I've heard and ultimately witnessed within the mental health system is actually quite the opposite. Restraints are being used being used proactively. Instead of waiting for a situation to escalate some professionals restrain a patient to prevent things from spiraling out of control.

The common sense part of our brain makes us think "Good on these people for using tools for preventing from escalating and possibly causing bodily injury to both the patient and the staff." However, restraints are not designed to be used proactively or in "might happen, could happen, may happen" situations. Restraints should only be used as a worst-case scenario and when all other options have been exhausted.

Those options though are dwindling thanks to a combination of a cut in services for those with mental illness and funding not reflecting the true cost of a growing population needing treatment. Instead more and more people are now experiencing mental health crisis and only receiving support long after they really should have received it.

It is my opinion that professionals are now using restraints to compensate for a lack support for a patient or inmate in a time of crisis. Their workloads are at an all time high and they may also be tasked with overseeing the care of other patients/inpatients with complex needs. But restraints should never be used to give professionals one less patient to care about nor should they be used to defuse a situation that doesn't need defusing.

In my experience restraints can be traumatic for somebody and usually intensify a situation. I urge the correctional and healthcare system in Ontario to undertake a serious review as to how restraints are used on people because how they're currently being used in my opinion is nothing short of unacceptable, degrading, and inhumane.