‘They are kept like animals’: Psychiatric patients suffer in dismal conditions at Charlotte Maxeke hospital
With October being Mental Health Awareness Month, the spotlight falls on the state of mental health services. In Joburg, Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital is in a state of crisis, with psychiatric patients being kept in untenable conditions.
Ward 161 at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital previously housed patients in need of emergency care, but for the past couple of months, it has been home to 30 psychiatric patients who are reportedly being kept in deplorable conditions.
A well-placed source informed Daily Maverick that patients are suffering as the hospital battles to cope with an influx of people in need of mental healthcare.
Conditions apparently deteriorated after the hospital began admitting patients in the wake of the Life Esidimeni tragedy in 2015.
Eight years ago, 144 psychiatric patients who were receiving care at Life Esidimeni’s psychiatric facilities across Gauteng died from starvation and neglect following a botched project to transfer patients to ill-equipped NGOs. The tragedy resulted in 1,500 state patients being removed from facilities run by private healthcare providers and being placed in government hospitals.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Looking back on Life Esidimeni – ‘Mental health still comes last in healthcare’
Charlotte Maxeke hospital has a dedicated psychiatric ward, but there are no empty beds. This has forced the hospital to make alternative arrangements by accommodating patients in the emergency department.
According to the source, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of victimisation by the Gauteng Department of Health (GDoH), the patients are being kept in an open area in an emergency department ward.
There is little to no privacy, with hospital beds haphazardly placed in the ward’s main room and pushed against the walls in the hallway. The patients don’t have access to ward bathrooms and are forced to use the public facilities near the emergency department’s waiting area, but only when accompanied by nurses or security.
“Maybe once or twice a day, the patients are taken to the bathroom by a nurse or security guard. If they have to use the bathroom between those times, they either relieve themselves on the floor or go in a plastic bottle. [The] patients are being kept like animals. It’s terrible,” the source said.
Daily Maverick visited the hospital on 13 October to verify the conditions under which the psychiatric patients were being treated.
White burglar bars are installed on the windows of Ward 161, which is protected by two security guards. Looking in from the outside, we saw patients roaming around the dimly lit ward. Some were lying in full view on gurneys in the hallway.
From what we could see, the patients appeared to be heavily medicated and were dressed in what appeared to be dirty pyjamas. One patient in particular stood out, with what looked like fresh blood on the front of his hospital gown.
Beyond the deteriorating conditions in which the patients are kept, the source also told Daily Maverick that the situation is unsafe for staff and patients alike.
“There was an incident where a patient lost his temper and attacked a nurse. The situation escalated, and the patient ended up punching the wall.
“The problem is not with the hospital administration… They are doing the best with what they have. We have sent requests for help to the department but have received no response,”
The source said the situation was not restricted to Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, but that similar issues were plaguing other government facilities in Johannesburg, including Helen Joseph Hospital and Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital.
GDoH is aware of the situation, with multiple members of staff penning letters asking for help. The department has reportedly not responded to these requests.
Daily Maverick asked the health department for comment, but there was no response by the time of publication. Charlotte Maxeke hospital also failed to respond to requests for comment. DM