CCHR Praised for 47 Years of Exposing Psychiatric Abuses in New Zealand

I acknowledge you and Citizens Commission on Human Rights for the work you have done over the years. We acknowledged that [also] in the Lake Alice hearing and your advocacy in uncovering what happened there back in the 70s and your continuing support for the survivors there through to the UN.... – Paul Gibson, Royal Commissioner

CCHR NZ spoke before a government inquiry about exposing decades of abuse where patients were electroshocked and drugged in the mental health system; psychiatric experimental treatment, and a litany of deaths. The Royal Commission heard of “children being raped, patients being over-medicated and a level of dehumanization akin to concentration camps.”

By Jan Eastgate
President CCHR International
July 22, 2022 

Citizens Commission on Human Rights New Zealand submitted a 100-plus page statement to a government inquiry covering 47 years of its research into psychiatry in New Zealand and its compelling work exposing human rights violations in the mental health system. The inquiry is a Royal Commission into institutional abuse, including the abuse of those with mental health issues and disabilities.  Public Hearings were held for eight days in July 2022 at which Mike Ferriss, the Executive Director of CCHR in NZ gave closing remarks on July 20th.

The investigation examined abuse of children, young people and vulnerable adults in State psychiatric care in New Zealand since 1950. This included treatment in psychiatric hospitals and other facilities, forensic psychiatric services, community psychiatric and rehabilitation services, including residential and non-residential care, as well as voluntary and non-voluntary care.[1]

To date nearly 1,900 survivors have shared their experience with the Commission. Those who appeared at the mental health and disability hearing spoke of physical, sexual, emotional, abuse and neglect, including physical, medical, emotional, educational, and cultural neglect. While the Royal Commission had a distinct focus on investigating abuse and neglect up until 1999, it recognized that some of the abuses remain part of society today.[2]

Throughout CCHR’s years of exposure of abuses, Mr. Ferriss said, “There was also often a deafening silence [about these abuses] from the College of Psychiatrists.”

CCHR provided evidence of abuse covering nearly five decades.  Mr. Ferriss had previously testified before a specialized hearing the Royal Commission held in 2021 that investigated the electroshock torture of hundreds of children at the country’s Lake Alice psychiatric hospital in the 1970s.  Children were shocked without anesthetic direct to their body parts, including their genitals as punishment for minor misbehavior. CCHR was instrumental in first exposing this and helping the survivors obtain compensation and in taking their concerns to the United Nations Committee of  Against Torture when the NZ government and medical authorities failed to properly address the abuse.  It took UN intervention before the government acted, launching a new police investigation and the Royal Commission conducting a special investigation into Lake Alice. and

In the July 2022 hearing, CCHR thanked the Royal Commission, the commissioners, the legal staff and researchers who made the hearing possible. “It has been a long time coming,” Mr. Ferriss said. 

The Royal Commissioner Paul Gibson, overseeing the hearing, responded: 

“I acknowledge you and Citizens Commission on Human Rights for the work you have done over the years.  We acknowledged that [also] in the Lake Alice hearing and your advocacy in uncovering what happened there back in the 70s and your continuing support for the survivors there through to the UN. I’ve read your extensive evidence and it’s impressive and thank you for you and your organization’s tenacity and endurance and advocacy over so many years for people with mental health conditions and survivors, and for those who did not survive in those institutions. Thank you.”

Jonty Dine, reporter for Radio New Zealand (RNZ) news summarized some of the evidence of appalling abuse and neglect survivors detailed to the Royal Commission, a small sample of which included:

  • “They have described the hell they endured at the hands of ‘evil’ staff members from disabled children being raped, patients being over-medicated and a level of dehumanization akin to concentration camps.” 
  • “There were forced sterilizations, beatings, medical incompetence causing death, and total emotional, cultural and educational neglect.”
  • Tony Ryder said he was punished by being forced to sit in an electric chair, locked in a basement, hit with a walking stick and called ‘retarded, queer and spastic.’ At another institution, Ryder was 14 when a member of staff tied him to the bed and raped him.”
  • Sidney Neilson was at Porirua Hospital between the ages of 19 and 42 and was given shock treatment every day without consent. “It was hell, it was worse than prison.” He was exposed to terrifying levels of violence.
  • Donna Phillips spent 30 years in the mental health system where, despite her making it known, she was forced to spend time with the man who sexually assaulted her. “I was left locked with the perpetrator for two weeks in the secure unit, I couldn’t get out.” Overmedication led to horrendous nightmares and staff would watch her shower. “It felt so uncomfortable, like an ambush.”
  • Many of the survivors spoke about the need for accountability and change.

Some of the salient points from CCHR’s Closing Remarks are as follows:

  • New Zealand was never a backwater when it came to psychiatric experimentation. From the 1940s onward, patients were treated with various forms of electroshock, lobotomies and drugs. In fact, some of the treatments closely resembled the mind control experiments conducted by psychiatrists for the CIA in the 1950s through 70s.
  • This included Intensive ECT or Electric Leucotomy practiced in Nelson’s Ngawhatu hospital in the 1950s. Women there had their memories completely obliterated with electroshocks and had to be nursed like babies for months afterwards. We found survivors of this experiment and they had no memory of their former life and did not even remember their own families.
  • In his opening address, New Zealand’s Crown Counsel said New Zealand had “a system that failed to understand,” but this shockingly minimizes the reality, serving only to mitigate the responsibility and accountability of the people involved in the abuse and those who ensured it remain hidden.
  • In actuality, we had a mental health system that segregated disabled people into large institutions, which enabled the psychiatric experimentation and abuse of them. Patients committed into State and mental health care had all legal and human rights stripped from them; they were powerless to challenge the abusive practices and were denied the right to refuse treatments they experienced were harming them.
  • The Crown Counsel also said that the abuse was “invisible.” It was not invisible to those committing it or to those who were responsible for ensuring it didn’t occur. Simply put, the brutality to which the mental and physically disabled people were subjected was not “open” to public As we have heard in the past week-and-a-half, family members objected to the treatments but were ignored and the treatment continued. To them, the abuse was very visible, but they felt powerless to stop it.
  • From the mid-1970s onward CCHR documented and exposed psychiatric violations of human rights in Tokanui, Kingseat, Lake Alice, Porirua, Oakley, Sunnyside and other hospitals, revealing many of the abuses heard by this Commission today. We exposed deep sleep and modified narcosis in nine psychiatric institutions.
  • We pressed for inquiries into the deaths of Mansel Watene at Carrington hospital in 1989 and Dolly Jane Pohe in the Rotorua psychiatric unit in 1991. We held our own commission of inquiry into a number of suicides at the Hastings psychiatric unit in the mid-90s, resulting in an investigation by the Medical Council.
  • One thing for certain about these and numerous other cases was they were never invisible.
  • We campaigned for human rights in mental health care while medical authorities ignored the concerns of the patients and their families that had turned to CCHR for help and protection, Authorities hid the real problems with sham investigations and inquiries that ignored real accountability by those involved.
  • In any given year, one could read news articles about the failed mental health system. Our records are full of these, including sexual abuse of patients; cruel and degrading treatment; preventable and, even treatment-driven suicides; and death. These matters have hardly been “invisible”!
  • At the beginning of this hearing, we heard how the pseudo-science of eugenics led to the incarceration of disabled children in large psycho-pediatric hospitals. They were labeled as “feeble minded” and “abnormal” and then subjected to psychiatric drugs. Today, some psychiatric colleges in other countries have even apologized for the atrocities their profession committed against patients in the name of eugenics, which was passed off at the time as acceptable “treatment.”
  • There was often a deafening silence from the New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.
  • A eugenics-like categorizing of children still occurs today, but in a much more sophisticated way and on a far greater scale. Across the country, four-year-old children are psychologically screened as part of a “B4 School Checks” health program using subjective checklists of behavioral symptoms. They are then categorized as normal, borderline and abnormal, which has led to thousands of interventions, including far greater numbers of younger children being put on antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs, not to mention psychostimulants, such as Ritalin.
  • Our mental health system is based around compulsory and, therefore coercive, treatment, including psychiatric drugs and electroshock. On average, over 5,000 people are subjected to compulsory psychiatric treatment each year. Maori and Pacific people are overrepresented in this.
  • Psychiatry asserts benefits from their treatments, when there are none or the damage they incur never justifies their use. Their reported statistics of “improved” from lobotomies and electro leucotomies given in the 1940s and 50s were as high as 80 percent. To them, “improved” meant a more docile, malleable person. Similar claims are still made today, and people subjected to their treatments see themselves as guinea pigs, where the drugs are trialed on them.
  • As the UN High Commissioner’s report stated in February this year, the overreliance on mental health drugs is a “significant obstacle to the realization of the right to health.”[3]
  • One of the ways psychiatrists dismiss their failures is by blaming the poor outcomes of their treatments on the mental condition of the patient, labelling them as non-compliant, non-responsive or “treatment-resistant.” This justifies more treatment, which means more drugs and electroshocks. They want legislation that allows this practice to continue. The objections to this are not only CCHR’s, despite its knowledge gained from long and tenacious history of fighting for patients’ rights.
  • Last year, Dr. Dainius Pūras, professor of psychiatry and former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health said: “Let us assume that each case of using nonconsensual measures is a sign of systemic failure, and that our common goal is to liberate global mental healthcare from coercive practices.”[4]
  • The UN has directed each member nation to abolish compulsory treatment from their mental health laws because such treatment can amount to torture. The Special Rapporteur against Torture said it is essential to “promote accountability for torture and ill-treatment in health-care settings by identifying laws, policies and practices that lead to abuse; and enable national preventive mechanisms to systematically monitor, receive complaints and initiate prosecutions.”[5]
  • The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reinforced this in a 2014 paper that: States parties must abolish policies and legislative provisions that allow or perpetrate forced treatment, as it is an ongoing violation found in mental health laws across the globe, despite empirical evidence indicating its lack of effectiveness and the views of people using mental health systems who have experienced deep pain and trauma as a result of forced treatment.[6]
  • Part of the redress survivors are asking for is a change in the mental health system. They want to see that perpetrators of psychiatric abuse are held accountable. The UN Human Rights Commissioner recommends that a holistic, not biomedical approach to treatment be implemented, and that there is recourse for those harmed or damaged by treatment or practices in the mental health system. We must move away from the long-entrenched idea that harmful coercive practices are part of “standard mental health care.”[7]
  • A good many of the abusive treatments documented at these hearings, as well as many CCHR has investigated in the past, could fall under Crimes of Torture, where punishment, ill and degrading treatment in psychiatric care occurred. Compensation now rests with the government through a redress scheme that truly acknowledges the harm done to them.
  • With this Royal Commission, Aoteroa New Zealand can truly set itself on the path to eliminating coercive practices so that legislation can never again enforce abuse in the name of mental health treatment. In its place can be instilled a system of human rights and accountable care.
  • CCHR should never again need to resort to making formal complaints to the United Nations Committee Against Torture to ensure justice is done in our mental health system. 

CCHR International commends CCHR NZ’s dedication and commitment to cleaning up the field of mental health and protecting patient rights.  It applauds the bravery of the hundreds of survivors that have spoken out, urges compensation for them and trusts that those responsible for the abuses are held accountable.




[3] Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General, 49th session, 28 Feb.–1 Apr. 2022

[4] Awai’s Aftab, MD, “Global Psychiatry’s Crisis of Values: Dainius Pūras, MD,” Psychiatric Times, 3 June 2021

[5] Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez; Human Rights Council Twenty-second session; Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development; 1 Feb. 2013

[6] United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Eleventh session, 31 March–11 April 2014, General comment No. 1 (2014); p. 11

[7] Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General, 49th session, 28 Feb.–1 Apr. 2022