[Editorial] Government action to prevent abuse of mentally ill is late, but welcome, development

Posted on : 2024-07-10 17:44 KST Modified on : 2024-07-10 17:44 KST
Korea’s Health and Welfare Ministry will investigate the use of seclusion and restraint of patients at mental hospitals following harrowing coverage of abuse at hospitals by the Hankyoreh
The on-call doctor at a psychiatric hospital in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, attempts CPR on a patient who was found dead after being restrained and tied to his bed in January 2022. A nurse and an orderly can be seen undoing the patient’s restraints. (CCTV footage)
The on-call doctor at a psychiatric hospital in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, attempts CPR on a patient who was found dead after being restrained and tied to his bed in January 2022. A nurse and an orderly can be seen undoing the patient’s restraints. (CCTV footage)

The Korean government said it will investigate whether the seclusion and restraint of patients is being properly handled by the country’s psychiatric hospitals. The move follows a gruesome report in the Hankyoreh about a patient dying after being tied to a bed for more than 250 hours at a hospital in Chuncheon.

It’s hardly news that coercive measures against patients at mental hospitals can involve a life-threatening degree of violence. But until the Hankyoreh covered the issue, the government didn’t even keep any basic data about seclusion and restraint at these hospitals. Under these circumstances, how could families entrust their loved ones to the tender care of a psych ward?

The Hankyoreh coverage is so shocking one can hardly believe such a thing could happen in a civilized society.

In January 2022, a 45-year-old patient at a psychiatric hospital in Chuncheon died after being left in seclusion for 251 hours and 50 minutes, with restraints on his hands, feet and chest.

Even more shocking was the hospital staff’s behavior after the patient’s death. They had the body transferred to the cooler at a morgue about 23 kilometers away, without asking family members for their consent, and didn’t inform them of their loved one’s death until two hours later.

These measures are hard to reconcile with any notion of common sense. And yet when the police were dispatched to look into the patient’s death, they concluded just three and a half hours later that the patient had succumbed to his condition. 

The bereaved family members filed a criminal complaint against the hospital staff for negligent homicide, but the police reportedly let them off without any charges.

Seclusion and restraint must be administered under strict guidelines because of the potentially fatal consequences for patients. Restraint of an adult (in Korea, those aged 19 and above) is limited to four hours per incident and isn’t allowed to exceed eight consecutive hours without consent from a specialist following an in-person assessment.

But those rules were completely disregarded by the hospital in question. Hospital staff ignored the patient’s complaints about pain, which continued until just before death.

That wasn’t the first patient to die because of seclusion and restraint at a psychiatric hospital. In 2005, a patient in their 50s died after being restrained for 124 consecutive hours. In 2013, a patient in their 70s died after being tied up for 17 hours. And in 2017, a patient in their 20s died after being left in restraints for 35 hours, which caused a social uproar.

Considering that the National Human Rights Commission of Korea has received 463 complaints about seclusion and restraint over the past five years (2019–2023), there are probably many other such incidents that remain under the radar.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Health and Welfare promised to institute systemic changes and carry out a fact-finding investigation to ensure that no similar incidents occur. We can only hope the appropriate measures are finally being taken, late as they may be.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles