Open letter to social worker supervisor from New York-Presbyterian Hospital, West Chester

Good morning Alexis,

Following up on this item…

I was referring to numbers 16, 17 and 19 in the patient bill of rights. 

Will you please send me my itemized bill as well as the standard list of charges?

I also need to know how to obtain a copy of my entire medical record. 

That should include my written complaint asking for a single delusion of mine to be documented. 

I never received a written response, so this will be at the top of my complaint to NY state’s department of health. 

I don’t know what this patent violation of my rights entitles me to, but I look forward to learning more after speaking with the authorities. 

I will begin the process to file a civil lawsuit against the two psychiatrists who “treated” me against my will and your employer in the weeks to come. 

Buenas Dias from Todos Santos. 

The best is ahead. 

Regards,
Francesco

Those who are capable of tyranny are capable of perjury to sustain it.

“Those who are capable of tyranny are capable of perjury to sustain it.” 

― Lysander Spooner

Perjury was committed today, as the tyrannical acts against me continue.

A life threatening substance, or two, will be forced into me tomorrow, in the name of medicine.

This place… NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital… and places like it… the psychiatrists who work here are on the deck of the Titanic.

Chances are… I will survive this tyrannical chemical assault on my body.

This nasty business surely will not survive the next quarter century, in its current form.

Mark my words.

#thenellieblyproject

cc: Michael O’Neil Joseph Guariglia The Washington Post WIRED

Addressing Secretary David Shulkin and his top 650 reports in 2017

Prior to working with Carl Bialik on #thenellieblyproject, the honor and privilege high watermark of my career was addressing Secretary David Shulkin and his top 650 reports at the 2017 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Senior Leadership Meeting.

The link below will take you to a 10 minute video of my remarks.

http://Iamyourdreamcometrue.com

#humbled#lucky#grateful

Open Letter to The Washington Post’s Robert Costa

Dear Mr. Costa:

IT’S relatively EASY TO MAKE A BUCK from hospitals who employ “white coats” (psychiatrists) who involuntarily force drugs that can kill or disable hapless people tagged with mental disorders from a nosology deemed invalid 7 years ago by the former director of the NIMH, Thomas Insel.

IT’S HARDER TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE for the unfortunates tyrannically imprisoned, in the name of medicine, ostensibly because they pose a safety risk to themselves or others.

Please don’t believe me, rather compare the patient experiences and financial fortunes amassed by me and my Zahm Hall section mate from the class of ’93, Michael O’Neil, Founder and CEO of the GetWellNetwork.  

The differences you will find are dramatic and important.

Your colleague, Mr. Tom Brokaw, closed his commencement address with the capitalized lines above back in 1993, and this scoop of a story clearly demonstrates Mr. Brokaw was and remains correct.

It’s time to dismantle the tyranny of “coercion” in mental healthcare in this country.

Thank you for your time and consideration. 

Sincerely,

Francesco Bellafante

Nellie Bly and I

By Anonymous

One hundred and thirty-one years before I spent 31 days locked up against my will, Nellie Bly spent 12 days locked up by choice. Our circumstances were different. Our locations were barely a mile apart. Our experiences had a lot in common.

Before I was locked up, I unwittingly had been acting differently than I ever had before, worrying the people around me with poor decisions and in some cases causing them emotional pain. Before Bly’s, she had wittingly been acting differently than she usually did, deliberately worrying strangers so that they would lock her up.

Bly, at age 23, invented and improvised the role of her lifetime: a woman confused and confusing enough for New York City officials to lock her in an asylum, during a time when the concept of madness was one of many tools men used to exert power over women. Bly was paid to be a journalist; she enabled her best journalism by being an actor. Her goal was to investigate asylum conditions from the inside. She succeeded, and after two days at Bellevue Hospital and 10 days in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, the New York World came to free its undercover investigative correspondent. Two days later, she began publishing what she’d learned.

The impetus for Bly’s investigation was a series of reports of poor treatment by Blackwell’s staff members, including two indicted for killing a “lunatic.” Before getting the assignment, Bly had been trying and failing to land a spot at a New York newspaper while her funds dwindled, according to Brooke Kroeger’s biography of Bly. Being locked up for perceived insanity offered an opportunity to exercise what would become Bly’s most successful brand of reporting: an undercover exposé of a little-known phenomenon that would horrify most people if they knew about it. Bly’s report showed how the state had granted doctors the power to lock up and abuse people who had been convicted of no crime, that doctors lacked the ability to diagnose and treat locked-in people effectively, and how the people that the system branded as lunatics had no rights or credibility by virtue of being branded.

Her investigation sparked outrage and brought more funding to asylums. In 1922, after Bly’s death, her friend and former editor Arthur Brisbane called her “THE BEST REPORTER IN AMERICA” and wrote that her exposure of Blackwell’s “improved the conditions of thousands of unfortunate inmates all over the country.”

I knew none of this until two years ago. In my 15 years working as a journalist, I had never heard of Bly, a pioneer in my field. I’d also never read any of the books that teach childrento emulate her courage and achievements. I’d never thought much about the thousands of psychiatric inmates all over the country, or of how their conditions had changed since Bly published the articles that were later collected in her book “Ten Days in A Mad-House.” And I had never considered that I could end up as one of those inmates myself.

Then, between March 12 and April 17, 2018, at age 38, I encountered the modern-day version of the system Bly exposed. First, I was locked up for 31 days: in two California psychiatric facilities—Eisenhower Urgent Care, Rancho Mirageand Pacific Grove Hospital—for three days; then, five days after my release, in a New York City institution—NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center—for 28 days.

I entered Weill-Cornell with many privileges: moderate wealth; excellent health insurance; a wise and caring primary-care doctor; loving family and friends—including doctors, lawyers, and journalists; my previous career as a journalist, and the public credibility it allowed me to build; my prior experience as a hospital patient, for treatment of an abdominal abscess; not experiencing symptoms that are most likely to heighten fear in others, such as hallucinations; being a white young man; and living in a city with many highly regarded institutions, led by Weill-Cornell.

I also entered Weill-Cornell wanting to understand my behavior and to restore my health. I knew I was acting unlike my usual self: I was overconfident and taking risks in my personal, professional, and financial lives. I wasn’t sleeping or eating enough. I also was coherent, peaceful, and had caused no physical harm to myself or others.

Quickly I concluded I wanted to leave Weill-Cornell and seek better treatment elsewhere. Quickly I learned that my privileges wouldn’t suffice, and that people without similar privileges had even less chance of freedom.

Three times I tried to escape my bonds: once by walking out, and twice by going to court. Each time I failed. In my first eight days of confinement I tried to exercise my right to decline to take psychiatric drugs. Four times doctors forced drugs into my body without my consent, once by using physical force.  My symptoms had dissipated before I went to court on my ninth day; my resistance dissipated after I lost in court. “Unfortunately, the patient is very intelligent, very well spoken, and maintains a very good composure in court,” the judge curiously described my lack of symptoms, according to the transcript, before authorizing unlimited further nonconsensual drugging of me, with up to eight different powerful sedative and psychoactive chemicals. No matter that at no time had I met the standard for locking up a New York resident who hasn’t committed a crime: posing “a substantial threat of harm to self or others.”

The United Nationshas called for people in mental-health facilities to be treated with respect, humanity, the best available healing, and all other basic rights, free from abuse and discrimination. That goes for everybody, including anyone for whom being locked in could prevent harm to themselves or others, anyone who chooses to be locked in for their own safety, and anyone who is healed while in those facilities. Bly’s treatment conformed to none of the principles adopted more than a century later by the U.N. General Assembly. Neither did mine, 27 years after they were adopted. Neither have dozens of unnamed respondents to threerecentsurveyswith a self-selected set of respondents and one with a representative set. Many inmate have had fewer privileges than me, and many suffered more.

After I got out, I studied the system that had just locked me up, its victims, and its critics. I learned the names of hundreds of other people who had been affected by the system, opposed it, or offered alternatives: people from hundreds of years ago and from today who had their own close encounters with the treatment of people diagnosed as mentally ill, and who chose to tell others what they’d seen. Some won campaigns for improvement; most watched the system resist and persist. They include inmates Clifford Whittingham Beers, who turned his mistreatment into a movement; and Adrian Schoolcraft, locked in a hospital by fellow police officers for blowing the whistle on their abuse of power. They include journalists Charles Dickens, sickened by what he saw at the asylum that would later house Bly; and Rosalind Adams, who documented how people seeking help get locked in so public companies can turn a profit. And they include people who proposed promising alternatives to locking people up, such as Loren Mosher, whose results were so good his project was shut down and his title stripped; and Pablo Sadler, whose New York City program offers an alternative to ER visits like mine.

And I read about Nellie Bly.

I read what Bly wrote, and read what others wrote about her. And I was struck by how alike her and her fellow inmates’ experiences at twofearedpublic New York City institutions in 1887 were to mine at a nearby renownedprivate NYC institution in 2018. I was struck by how little evidently had changed despite her journalistic triumph.

Any two people swept up in the system, like any two people anywhere, are vastly different, including in their health and in their ability to respond. That’s true for me when the other person is an 1880s undercover journalist, and when it’s the person in the bed next to mine in the asylum. What unites us is how we are seen and treated by the system, and our outrage at the treatment and lack of oversight, justice, and reform.

Bly took notes while she was locked up. So did I. To tell my story today, I read what I wrote at the time, including in a hospital notebook, online, and in emails. I also read my medical records and court documents, listened to consensual audio recordings I made at the time, filed a public records request for reports I made at the time to a government patient hotline, and ran this account by loved ones who visited me while I was locked up.

Below is Bly’s story, as told in “Ten Days in A Mad-House,” and mine. Excerpts from her book are italicized.

“I myself cried for water until my mouth was so parched and dry that I could not speak.”—Blackwell’s inmate Bridget McGuinness

My three days of being locked up in California started with an ambulance ride to Eisenhower. On the ride, I got thirsty and asked for water. No one gave me water: not in the ambulance, not once I’d arrived at Eisenhower. No one made eye contact with me when I asked. When the doctor appeared and authorized water, I got some, along with a nonconsensual drugging delivered by the doctor with a forceful jabbing that left me bleeding.

Later I protested my experience at Eisenhower. In response I received a letter stating that “Your medical records were reviewed by the Medical Director of the Emergency Department and the care and treatment provided was appropriate for your presentation.” I wasn’t interviewed or contacted as part of the review.

My three days of captivity ended with my having spent a total of five minutes with a psychiatrist. Pacific Grove discharged me without a prescription or an appointment with a doctor.

In psychiatry, disease has no biological testsand ever-shifting definitions, meaning two doctors often disagree about the same case, at a frequency that would be considered poorin other medical specialties.

Then he wrote my fate in the book before him. I said, “I am not sick and I do not want to stay here. No one has a right to shut me up in this manner.” He took no notice of my remarks, and having completed his writings, as well as his talk with the nurse for the moment, he said that would do…—With a Blackwell’s doctor

In my book of fates, Weill-Cornell doctors justified locking me in by citing my opposition to being locked in and nonconsensually drugged: I was “resisting being changed into patient clothes” and exhibiting “poor judgment and insight” by “refusing [Emergency Department] treatment.”

Today doctors call questioning a psychiatric diagnosis anosognosia, and treat it as a symptom of many diagnosed disorders. That sort of meta name-calling is a good way to win any argumentand preserve an unblemished record of diagnostic accuracy.

I recorded audio in the Weill-Cornell emergency room until my phone was taken from me and turned off. I can hear

  • the door shut behind me;
  • my repeated requests for a lawyer go ignored;
  • being told I need to take off all my clothes and get into paper scrubs;
  • refusing to give up my phone;
  • asking to leave and being told I can’t;
  • asking what crime I’ve committed;
  • the sound of being forcibly separated from my phone.

After this, I began to have a smaller regard for the ability of doctors than I ever had before, and a greater one for myself. I felt sure now that no doctor could tell whether people were insane or not, so long as the case was not violent.—At Bellevue

I made several requests of the doctors assigned to me: persuade me of their diagnosis; let me record audio of our sessions; let me see different doctors instead.

Today my requests strike me as reasonable ones I’d make again. To my doctors they were signs of my paranoia and litigiousness, each of which they referred to dozens of times in my medical record as symptoms of disease.

Among the ways doctors referred in my medical records to my behaviors and beliefs as disease markers and evidence I needed to be locked in:

  • “precise attempts to out-logic and out-argue”;
  • “trying to argue against both, skillfully”;
  • “continues to have logical, intellectualized defenses”;
  • being “argumentative”;
  • “Hypervigilance”;
  • considering myself locked up instead of an “inpatient admission”;
  • using wordplay; writing online criticism of the institution and doctors.

My disagreements with the doctor put in charge of my case contributed to the contentious nature of our relationship. Our daily consultations were short, my remarks brief. One day I remember deciding to try a friendlier tone. Later that day, her assistant told me the doctor was now forcing me to take an additional brain-altering drug because the change in my manner that day had worried her.

My discharge from a place where I had no choice in doctors restored my freedom to choose a doctor. And I shopped around. I saw nine different doctors and therapists within two months. Each one had to list a diagnostic codefor my insurance claims. Nine practitioners used eight different diagnostic codes between them. One thing they can all agree on: I’ve had no symptoms of illness. That’s helped spare me further incarceration.

Psychiatric diagnosis ishard.

I always made a point of telling the doctors I was sane and asking to be released, but the more I endeavored to assure them of my sanity the more they doubted it.—At Blackwell’s

“Insight” is what doctors today call inmates’ acceptance of doctors’ diagnosis and cooperation with doctors’ proposed course of action.

My insight was that I didn’t want to be locked up, I didn’t think it was good for my health, and I wanted my rights restored.

I tried to register my objections in any way I thought might help. I started a hunger strike. I shared my concerns with dozens of visitors and staff members. I contacted other journalists and the hospital’s public-relations department. I wrote about my experience online and urged other inmates to do so. I submitted a column to the New York Daily News. It began, “Thousands of New Yorkers are trapped against their will, victims of the most insidious threat to civil rights today. I know because I am one of them.”

To doctors, these were all clear signs that I did not have insight, and that their diagnosis was  confirmed.

They told me not eating wasn’t an act of civil disobedience but a symptom of illness.

They told me my decision to go to court to seek release demonstrated a lack of insight and would keep me locked up longer.

They told me my attempts to publicize how I’d been treated were distracting from my care.

They told me I couldn’t leave until holding a meeting with them and my loved ones, in which I would be forced to give up my right to decide with whom to share my medical information. I would have to demonstrate obedience to the doctors before others to be considered for discharge.

I had a new insight: I would have to give up and obey to leave. So I did. And after I did, doctors agreed: I had insight.

“Do you ever hear voices at night?” he asked. “Yes, there is so much talking I cannot sleep.” “I thought so,” he said to himself. Then turning to me, he asked: “What do these voices say?”—With a Bellevue doctor

Bly meant the voices of staff keeping her up.

Combine confirmation bias with the power imbalance between doctor and inmate, and the theft of credibility caused by being branded mentally ill, and you get Bly’s experience of a doctor hearing something she didn’t say.

You also get these experiences of mine:

I’ve covered over a dozen tennis Grand Slam tournaments as a professional journalist. During those two-week periods I have sometimes been happy, active, and underslept—just like many of my colleagues. I mentioned this to doctors, who recorded my comment in my medical record as if I had corroborated their suspicion that I had a history of mental illness.

I was invited to an awards ceremony in Oslo, scheduled shortly after I’d been locked up. I had attended the same event the previous year, when it had been held at the Norwegian consulate in New York. I spent a few minutes submitting a free, no-commitment electronic RSVP, in case I decided to go. A concerned person believed a falsehood, that I had bought an airline ticket to Oslo, and told doctors. I tried explaining the error. My nonexistent ticket to Oslo made it into the document submitted by my doctor to the judge who’d hear my case for discharge—and along the way, Norway had become Finland.

I told my doctors I thought their thinking and mistakes exhibited confirmation bias. They included my comment in their notes as a sign of my active illness.

What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?—At Blackwell’s

My cycle went like this: Doctors denied my requests such as for recording, changing doctors, wearing my own clothes, or using computers. That turned me into their untrusting antagonist. Doctors then equated my antagonistic stance with illness, and dug more firmly into their own antagonistic stance.

As I testified at my second court hearing, according to the transcript, “Disagreement is not a mode that seems like one the treatment team is used to undergoing.”

“I will be honest with you,” the judge concluded. “I find your position and your testimony and your demeanor to be very compelling, but I find this doctor’s testimony to be credible.” He allowed the doctors to keep me locked up for up to 14 more days. “For right now I think you are almost there, but not quite yet,” he said.

He sat silent, unable to contradict my assertion. “Why don’t you have it changed?” I asked. “What can I do?” he replied. “I offer suggestions until my brain is tired, but what good does it do? What would you do?” he asked, turning to me, the proclaimed insane girl.—With Dr. Ingram at Blackwell’s

My doctor’s assistant repeatedly professed powerlessness when I asked why he couldn’t change something he claimed to agree needed change: about my treatment, or about the institution that paid him. He then repeatedly asked me how I would change it. These conversations were not recorded in his notes in my medical record.

Compare this with a criminal, who is given every chance to prove his innocence.—At Blackwell’s

People in penal prisons often experience inhumane conditions and abuse.

Psych wards are like prisons, and their inmates sometimes experience similar abuse, for similar reasons. 

Things some penal prisoners have that we didn’t:

  • outdoor time;
  • the possibility of conjugal visits;
  • freedom from having chemicals forced into you;
  • a release date.

One night they came in and tried to make me take a dose of some mixture out of a glass “to make me sleep,” they said. I told them I would do nothing of the sort and they left me, I hoped, for the night. My hopes were vain, for in a few minutes they returned with a doctor, the same that received us on our arrival. He insisted that I take it, but I was determined not to lose my wits even for a few hours. When he saw that I was not to be coaxed he grew rather rough, and said he had wasted too much time with me already. That if I did not take it he would put it into my arm with a needle. It occurred to me that if he put it into my arm I could not get rid of it, but if I swallowed it there was one hope, so I said I would take it. I smelt it and it smelt like laudanum, and it was a horrible dose. No sooner had they left the room and locked me in than I tried to see how far down my throat my finger would go, and the chloral was allowed to try its effect elsewhere.—With Blackwell’s night nurses

Doctors’ language made violence sound like kindness. When staff forced me to choose either nonconsensual drugging by mouth or by needle, it was described in my medical record as “offering” or “giving” “treatment,” or of my “requiring” it. “No drugs” was not an option.

According to the transcript of my first court hearing, my doctor described an incident in which I was told by a doctor surrounded by a half dozen other staffers, including security guards, to swallow drugs or I’d be forcibly injected, like this: I had taken a drug “in the presence of security.”

Superintendent Dent went through the sitting-room, giving an occasional “How do you do?” “How are you to-day?” here and there among the patients. His voice was as cold as the hall, and the patients made no movement to tell him of their sufferings. I asked some of them to tell how they were suffering from the cold and insufficiency of clothing, but they replied that the nurse would beat them if they told.—At Blackwell’s

Each week doctors and other staff members hosted what they called a community meeting. Attended by the chief doctor, his colleagues, and any inmate who showed up, it was billed as a forum to exchange candid views about the state of care.

Seeing my first week’s community meeting as an opportunity to create dozens of witnesses to illegal behavior, I objected to nonconsensual drugging of inmates, citing my own experience. The chief reacted by smilingly soliciting testimonials from other inmates about how my uncooperative behavior on the ward had upset them.

After the meeting, I politely sought to continue the conversation with the chief. He was out in the open, surrounded by colleagues and other inmates. He responded by backing away and telling me he found my demeanor threatening.

“Shut up, or you’ll get it worse.”—Miss Grupe, a Blackwell’s nurse, to inmate Tillie Mayard

“Other people are not shut up for crazy when they get angry. I suppose the only thing to do is to keep quiet and so avoid the beatings which I see others get.”—Blackwell’s inmate Margaret

Doctors can take away people’s freedoms: to leave, to refuse chemicals, or to do anything else. They expect obedience in return. Obey and you get comparatively good treatment: soda, snacks, your meds where and when you want them. Obey and you don’t get assaulted and nonconsensually drugged with violence. Obey and you get out.

Every half-hour or hour they would walk heavily down the halls, their boot-heels resounding like the march of a private of dragoons, and take a look at every patient.—At Bellevue

Every 15 minutes staff checked on each inmate. Some staff members were quiet; many were not. Every waking minute in the low tide between checks I spent seeking slumber while fearing it wouldn’t come before the inevitable high tide of the next check.

The people paid to heal us walked with a heavy gait, talked loudly, and locked, unlocked, and slammed doors when we were supposed to be sleeping. Then my difficulty sleeping was cited as a symptom of madness, and a justification for nonconsensual administration of tranquilizing drugs.

I could not sleep, so I lay in bed picturing to myself the horrors in case a fire should break out in the asylum. Every door is locked separately and the windows are heavily barred, so that escape is impossible.—At Blackwell’s

Unless there is a change there will someday be a tale of horror never equaled.—At Blackwell’s

The two fire-escape doors in our 11th-floor locked area, staffed many nights by no more than three people awake at any time, were locked as well, despite the well-known history of danger from firesto people who are locked in.

People in the world can never imagine the length of days to those in asylums.—At Blackwell’s

To doctors and nurses, the days must seem nonstop, with every moment spent either with inmates, or documenting moments with inmates.

There were far more inmates than staff members, so for us there was little to fill the 23 hours between our time with doctors besides worrying about whether they’d respond positively to what we planned to ask. Meals, optional group therapy, computers, books, newspapers, and television—its max-volume setting made part of your day even if you didn’t want it to be—were the lights and lowlights.

Exacerbating the elongation of days: not knowing how many were left in your sentence.

Poor patients! How eager they were for a breath of air; how eager for a slight release from their prison.—At Blackwell’s

I looked at the pretty lawns, which I had once thought was such a comfort to the poor creatures confined on the Island, and laughed at my own notions. What enjoyment is it to them? They are not allowed on the grass—it is only to look at.—At Blackwell’s

The UN saysall prisoners must have access to the outdoors. Some psychiatric inmates get to go outside, as Bly did.

We at Weill-Cornell got no outdoor time—unless we went to court.

In four weeks, I got roughly four minutes of fresh air, from the eight brief trips to and from the ambulance for my two court dates:

  • from Weill-Cornell to the ambulance parked outside;
  • from the ambulance to Wards Island’s Manhattan Psychiatric Center, home of the makeshift court;
  • back from court to the ambulance;
  • back from the ambulance to Weill-Cornell.

Once, and then again a week later.

“I want my book and pencil,” I said, quite truthfully. “It helps me remember things.”—At Blackwell’s

Though I wasn’t employed by a newspaper or on assignment, I also reported on my own case, filling a notebook during meetings with doctors and other crucial moments. My notetaking habit was noted in my medical records as another symptom of illness.

I wish I’d taken more notes. I wish I’d been permitted to record audio of sessions so I had more evidence that would be less easily disputed.

What I would go back to tell myself then, and would tell others now: Document everything. And ask for a lawyer.

In giving this story, I expect to be contradicted by many who are exposed. I merely tell in common words, without exaggeration, of my life in a mad-house.

The word of many stood against mine: They said I was not competent to be free, to make my own medical decisions, to use the Internet, to use the phone or bathroom unmonitored.

The word of many also corroborates mine. My medical records largely line up with what I write here, once I unskew the falsehoods and confirmation bias. There’s little reason for the system to fear repercussions; it has withstood so many challenges before.

The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.

A place operating under the logic that if you’re there, you need to be there, can keep you for a long time.

They pounced upon her and slapped her face and knocked her head in a lively fashion. This made the poor creature cry the more, and so they choked her. Yes, actually choked her. Then they dragged her out to the closet, and I heard her terrified cries hush into smothered ones. After several hours’ absence she returned to the sitting-room, and I plainly saw the marks of their fingers on her throat for the entire day.—Blackwell’s nurses with inmate Urena Little-Page

…she caught the woman by her gray hair and dragged her shrieking and pleading from the room. She was also taken to the closet, and her cries grew lower and lower, and then ceased. The nurses returned to the room and Miss Grady remarked that she had “settled the old fool for awhile.” I told some of the physicians of the occurrence, but they did not pay any attention to it.—Blackwell’s nurses with an inmate known as both Mrs. Grady and Mrs. O’Keefe

I didn’t experience or see anything this abusive. Iwaslucky.

I did experience being dragged, handled roughly, pinned to the ground under the weight of three people, deprived of air, drugged nonconsensually with an injection in my butt, and kept in isolation past the typical duration by a man who yelled in response to my request for an explanation or release.

On the day of my assault, I

  • bore witness to a roommate who was about to be nonconsensually drugged for what my doctor later called “physical escalation” and what I saw as expressing frustration at his being locked up by throwing books at the floor, near no other person and putting no one in danger;
  • told the staff member who claimed I needed to leave during the nonconsensually drugging to protect my roommate’s privacy that I thought I was being asked to leave to protect the staff’s privacy and jobs;
  • told my roommate he had rights and that we should stick together;
  • objected to our forced separation into separate rooms;
  • called my lawyer;
  • after I had been assaulted, told the man who had been most violent that he ought to release me from seclusion because he was only digging himself a deeper hole;
  • stayed calm and nonviolent throughout.

The next day, at my first court hearing seeking release, my doctors cited the assault as evidence that I had become even sicker than before and was in even more dire need of further hospitalization; why else would I have needed such rough handling? According to the transcript, my doctor described me as having been “charging away from staff.” Consider the phrase “charge away,” and what kinds of actions people can take that might provoke someone to charge away from them.

Among the dozens of phone numbers I called to report the assault was the New York State Justice Centerhotline, which I’d been told existed to protect inmates. My suspicion is that report—one of 14 of mine recorded by the Justice Center and turned over to me later in response to my public-records request—got back to doctors, who told me they were investigating. The team of investigators spent a total of a few minutes getting my account. The only result of the investigation I saw was that my chief assaulter and captor was temporarily transferred to another ward, until staffing issues brought him back into my proximity. Weill-Cornell claimed to have conducted another investigation after I complained following my discharge. The institution cleared itself without interviewing me: “Please note the review shows the standard of care was met, a Weill-Cornell representative wrote to me. About my assault, she wrote, “The review explained this was an appropriate and necessary measure at the time.”

I reported Weill-Cornell to my insurer, which responded, “As a result of your inquiry, we will be conducting an investigation within our established peer review process, which, by law, must remain confidential.” I wasn’t contacted further and never learned the result of the investigation.

Here’s the end of the Justice Center operator’s notes about of my call just after the incident, with names removed by me:

“He then went to the phone to call his lawyer [name] at about 5:30PM and while on the phone, about 10 staff members surrounded him. Nurse, [name] Unknown, Staff [name] and [name]

Unknown and Dr. [name] were present. They all forced him to get off the phone and hung up the phone on him. He was told he needed to go somewhere to take medications. He told them that if they had to give him medications, they had to do it there, but was told no. He then went limp on the ground and he was forcibly picked up and brought to the seclusion room. He was set down on his stomach in the seclusion room and he was still not resisting. Staff [name]

and two other unknown security officers were on top of him. One staff was on chest, while the other two were on his legs and arms. It was difficult for him to breath with the staff on his chest. He was told he needed to take the drugs and he said he would take them orally. He was told no and his pants were pulled down and he was injected in the buttocks. The staff continued to hold him down and a few minutes later they all got up and left and locked the door. Staff [name] was stationed outside the door and told him he would let him out in 5 minutes if he was calm. He ended up being in the room for 40 minutes, with [name] outside the door. He was let out and was given his notebook back, a little torn up.”

Hundreds of days before I’d heard of Nellie Bly, and just after I’d been surrounded, dragged by six people, restrained by three, made short of breath by one person’s weight, nonconsensually injected with sedatives, and locked in isolation, I thought to myself, When people learn what just happened to me, it won’t happen to anyone ever again.

That was the craziest thought I’ve ever had.

Delaware’s involuntary commitment laws violate a patient’s right to due process

November 12th 2019

Dear Governor Carney & Delaware General Assembly Members:

I am writing to follow up on my September 30th message about working together to change the involuntary commitment process in Delaware.  

Last month marked four years since Caroline Ekong lost her life, and Christopher Frick lost his freedom.  The tragic outcome of this doctor/patient relationship highlights an obvious discrepancy in how Delaware’s legal framework protects the rights of people subject to severe deprivations of liberty.

Christopher Frick and Dr. Caroline Ekong

It doesn’t take a legal scholar to recognize that Frick had greater due process protection after he confessed to killing Ekong compared to when she decided to deprive him of his freedom for medical reasons. 

The people of Delaware need a civil commitment process that does a better job of protecting patients’ civil rights. Changing Delaware’s civil commitment procedure in a way that safeguards a patient’s right to due process will serve to prevent future tragedies like this one.

Alexander Tsesis, Assistant Professor at Loyola University, School of Law in Chicago is the legal scholar who wrote “Due Process in Civil Commitments,” which was published in the Washington and Lee University Law Review in 2011.

Professor Tsesis’s writing cogently explains why and how we should change the process used in Delaware to deprive people deemed to be suffering from a mental health condition of their liberty. 

Tsesis argues, that: 

…the beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof is needed to closely scrutinize evidence of mental disease and dangerousness.

Tsesis, 68 WASH. & LEE L. REV. 253 (2011)

An examination of the Delaware Code for Health and Safety from CHAPTER 50 of TITLE 16 reveals that it does not utilize the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard to closely scrutinize evidence of mental disorder and/or dangerousness.

Writing about the landmark case in 1975 (O’Connor v. Donaldson), Tsesis explains why the Supreme Court’s decision placed due process limits on involuntary psychiatric commitments:

The ambiguity of a mental illness diagnosis and the extent to which civilly committed patients are deprived of their liberty rendered the mere diagnosis of mental illness without a finding of dangerousness inadequate to meet due process requirements. Social deviance may make a person the object of animus but cannot excuse restrictions on liberty. Demonstrating an understanding that mental illness was a powerful social label that could be misapplied, Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the majority, asserted that “the mere presence of mental illness does not disqualify a person from preferring his home to the comforts of an institution.”

Tsesis, 68 WASH. & LEE L. REV. 253 (2011)

Comparing involuntary commitments to being imprisoned, Tsesis argues that:

Involuntary commitments are most closely related to criminal punishments because both adjudicate whether respondents whom society has found to be too dangerous should be at liberty. Both involve severe deprivations of liberty.

Without judicial oversight, the potential for abuse is enormous in both areas of law. The [Supreme] Court recognized that civil commitment, like imprisonment, “constitutes a significant deprivation of liberty that requires due process protection.”

Tsesis, 68 WASH. & LEE L. REV. 253 (2011)

Unwarranted deprivations of liberty are egregious violations of a right deemed sacrosanct in this country – the right to be free while operating within the bounds of the law. 

Highlighting the subjective nature of psychiatric diagnoses, Tsesis argues that judicial oversight plays a critical role in safeguarding patients’ civil rights:

The social concern for safety is reflected in the dangerousness component of the involuntary institutionalization test. A state can only confine mentally ill persons who have demonstrated a propensity for dangerous conduct. If mental illness is difficult to prove, the dangerousness element is even more difficult because it involves a prediction of future behavior. …

The need for judicial oversight of involuntary commitments is acute because psychiatric diagnoses rely on professional judgments, intuitions, and algorithms to a greater degree than ordinary medical diagnoses, which have more verifiable biological components.

Tsesis, 68 WASH. & LEE L. REV. 253 (2011)

Tsesis concludes by explaining why the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard should be utilized when evaluating a patient for involuntary commitment:

The beyond a reasonable doubt standard provides the best means available for evaluating whether the petitioner seeking to institutionalize another has met the two criteria of Addington. Factors tending to show the existence of mental illness and danger to self or others are stigmatizing.  

Unless both can be proven to a near certainty, the liberty interests of the party challenging the commitment should significantly outweigh the government’s interest to indefinitely hospitalize the respondent. 

The clear and convincing standard provides a high probability of proof, but proof beyond a reasonable doubt offers near certainty that civil commitment has not been erroneously imposed. 

Tsesis, 68 WASH. & LEE L. REV. 253 (2011)

Thank you for your time and consideration of this proposal, and heads up that I will be reaching out to each of you by phone to introduce myself, and to engage you and/or your staff directly on the best way to move forward.

Sincerely,

Francesco Bellafante
Creator & Executive Editor
The Nellie Bly Project

Open letter to Governor Carney & the Delaware General Assembly

September 30th

Dear Governor Carney & Delaware General Assembly:

I am a Delaware native currently living in Washington D.C. who is reaching out to you to enlist your help in improving civil rights protections within the mental healthcare system in the state of my birth.

I will follow up with more information next week, but this blog post explains why I want to work with all of you to change the civil commitment laws in Delaware.

Sincerely,
Francesco Bellafante

The Nellie Bly Project


Exposing injustice in mental healthcare and inspiring systemic reform

Back in August of 2002, I made an unauthorized visit to Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia

I said something about this unauthorized visit to my father. Then my father said something about it to my mother and my brother. Then my mother and my brother said something about it to a psychiatrist.

Then, without asking me one single question about it, the psychiatrist arranged for police officers to take me into custody, and to transport me to a for profit mental health care facility named MeadowWood, to be involuntarily admitted for emergency psychiatric care, that I had to pay for in spite of the fact that it was provided to me against my will and against my explicitly expressed wishes.

Subsequent to being taken into custody, the psychiatrist filled out the requisite paperwork to justify why he was involuntarily committing me.

Subsequent to being admitted to MeadowWood, the resident psychiatrist there, Caroline Ekong, reportedly reviewed the paperwork completed by the psychiatrist who civilly committed me. Then, prior to meeting or speaking with me, Caroline Ekong directed staff to inject me with a powerful antipsychotic drug called Haldol.

About a decade later Caroline Ekong civilly committed a University of Delaware student named Christopher Frick to a different private, for profit mental health care facility. A few years later, in October of 2015, Christopher Frick stabbed Caroline Ekong to death.

In May of 2016, while working on a manuscript for a memoir about my involuntary psychiatric treatment, I learned of Caroline Ekong’s death after Googling her name.

In early 2017 I wrote and published the following open letter to the psychiatrist who civilly committed me.

Dear Dr. Michael Marcus,

Back in 2002, I had some ideas on July 31st and August 1st that led me to get into a pickup truck, and drive to Langley, Virginia, from my home in Philadelphia. Before leaving, I grabbed a glass pipe with a hunk of hashish in it and a larger than life sized poster of Albert Einstein with his tongue sticking out. A few hours later, after slowly driving past a large sign informing me that I was trespassing onto CIA property, I told the first federal police officer that I encountered, that I had driven there, in part, to identify myself as the person who had just registered a particular domain name related to Osama bin Laden.

I explained how I had lost my Internet connection at home earlier in the day, just seconds after registering the domain. I was questioned by a few different federal officers over the next hour as I remained in my truck, and was eventually surrounded by four armed officers, with weapons at the ready — three on foot in front of me and on either side of me, and one atop a military humvee, behind me. After that an officer wearing body-armor asked me to get out of the truck, and frisked me before cuffing my hands together behind my back. Then four officers escorted me inside, through a metal detector and down a hallway into a small room with a table and two chairs. There were two cameras in opposite corners of the room, near the ceiling, that were aimed at the chair they sat me down in.

Next, an officer came into the room and read me my rights, and then, an unassuming, middle-aged man not wearing a uniform came into the room, sat down in the chair across from me and asked me to explain myself. We had a cordial, cogent conversation for over an hour, during which I explained my reasons for doing what I did, in detail.

After that, one of the federal officers removed my handcuffs, and gave me a citation for misdemeanor possession of cannabis, and for trespassing at the CIA. Next, my questioner escorted me out of the small room and down the hallway again towards the door I had originally entered the building through. To my complete surprise, he extended his right hand, as if to shake mine, and said, “Thanks for your cooperation tonight.” I instinctively reached up, and started shaking his hand.

“There’s a difference between wisdom and intelligence. You only made one mistake. You should have thrown the pipe out the window before you pulled up to the gate,” he said.

We were still shaking hands when I responded, “That’s what you think.” Our handshake ended. Neither of us said anything else, and I got back in my pickup truck, and headed home to Philly.

Thirteen days later I arrived at the Pathways office at Wilmington Hospital with my mother and older brother. At that time, you told us that you wanted to speak to my mother and brother first, in private, before speaking with me, your patient. They went into your office, and I accompanied another patient of yours outside for a cigarette.

“So, what’s up with Dr. Marcus talking with your family without you in there?” he asked.

“I’m pretty sure I’m about to be committed,” I replied.

“Really? What for?” he asked.

“It’s a long story,” I said.

“Well, for what it’s worth, you don’t look crazy to me man,” he said smiling wryly. I smiled back.

“Hey thanks man, I’m not. I just…”

“You just what?” he asked.

“I just don’t think like most people think, I think. You know what I mean?” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “Maybe you should get away for a while. Bus station’s just a couple blocks from here,” he said.

“I know,” I said, as I reached into my pocket, and pulled out a train ticket to Penn Station in New York City and smiled.

“Even better! What are you waiting for?!” he asked.

“I don’t know… there’s part of me that wants to be on the inside again,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“The last time I was inside a mental hospital I was miserable, but I’m not miserable now. You ever heard of Nellie Bly?” I asked.

“No, who’s that?” he said.

“She was a reporter in the late 19th century who feigned madness in order to get committed so that she could write about what was wrong with mental health care back then,” I said.

“Is that what you’re trying to do now?” he asked.

“Sort of… I just think I might be in a better position to help the people inside than the doctors who work there,” I said.

“Is that what you’re going to tell Dr. Marcus?” he asked.

“No. He thinks I have bipolar disorder. I’m sure he’d think I was suffering from delusions of grandeur if I said that,” I said chuckling.

“I think you’re right about that. Do you think you have bipolar disorder?” he asked.

“I don’t know… I mean, my energy and mood ebbs and flows sometimes, that’s for sure… but I like to think of myself as more of a… bipolar explorer, you know what I mean?” I said.

“Yeah… I think I do,” he said as he took the last drag on his cigarette. “Well, wherever you end up… I wish you luck,” he said.

We shook hands. “Thanks brother. You too, and be well.” I said.

“Same to you,” he said and walked away.

Next, I headed back inside the hospital and took a seat again in your waiting room. A few minutes later, you opened the door to your office, and invited me to come in. I went inside, sat down in front of you with my brother and mother seated behind me, and you proceeded to ask me questions about my mood, my appetite and how much I was sleeping.

You also asked me if I was having any suicidal thoughts. I told you that my mood was elevated, my appetite was fine, I was sleeping a little less than usual and that I hadn’t had a suicidal thought in years.

Next you asked me if I’d be willing to admit myself to a psychiatric hospital for a while. I said no, and told you there was no good reason to do so. You asked me if I would be willing to participate in an outpatient, day-program, and I said I was willing to consider it. Then, you said that we were done talking, and that I was free to go. I opened the door to leave your office, and I was greeted by two police officers who took me into custody.

I cooperated completely with the cops. It seemed apparent that they were pros adept at handling people in my situation — someone who had just been summarily stripped of his inalienable right to liberty by an agent of the state with considerably less due process and civil rights protections than suspected violent criminals. The two cops and I had a convivial conversation on the ride from the hospital to MeadowWood, the private, for-profit psychiatric hospital you committed me to.

It had been four years since I’d been in a mental health care facility. I was in a good mood by the time I was admitted, and shortly thereafter I was chatting idly with my fellow patients in the common room of the adult ward. Within half an hour of arriving I was standing in front of a whiteboard distinguishing Einstein’s theory of special relativity from his general theory of relativity for a small cadre of my fellow patients, as staffers sized me up.

I excused myself from the group when a staffer asked to speak with me in private. She explained that MeadowWood’s resident psychiatrist had issued an order for me to begin treatment immediately by taking a dose of Risperdal, a powerful antipsychotic medication.

“So the doctor wants me to begin treatment before meeting or speaking with me?” I asked.

“That’s right,” the staffer said.

“Well, that doesn’t seem right to me. I’d like to meet with my doctor before he decides how best to treat me,” I said.

“Dr. Ekong is a woman,” she said.

“Fine. Her gender has nothing to do with why I want to meet her before I begin taking a new medication. How can she prescribe a course of treatment for me without ever meeting or speaking with me?” I asked.

[Please pardon my sexist bias evident in this reply!]

“Dr. Ekong reviewed your file — ”

“My file? I have a file already?” I said, cutting her off. “I’ve been here less than an hour and haven’t spoken with a doctor yet. What’s in my file? Can I see it?” I asked.

“You can discuss that with Dr. Ekong during your time with her tomorrow when she’s here,” she said.

“Okay great. That’s all I was asking for. Thank you,” I said and turned to walk away, feigning that I thought I had sold her on me not taking the Risperdal.

“Wait a second! Dr. Ekong’s order still stands, and if you don’t take your medication, I have to report back to her,” she said calling after me.

“I thought you just said that I could wait to discuss this with her tomorrow when she’s here,” I said, continuing with my feigned misunderstanding.

“I said that you can discuss your file and your treatment plan with her when she’s here. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have to do my job, and administer the medication prescribed for you by your doctor,” she said.

“Okay. I’m assuming you can reach her by phone then?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Then why can’t I speak with her?” I asked.

“That’s not how it works,” she said.

“Okay… well… can you please explain to her that I would like to meet with her before she unilaterally decides on a course of treatment for me?” I asked.

“I can, but if you continue to refuse to take the medication prescribed for you, she’s likely to order us to treat you with a different one. One that can be injected with a needle,” she said.

“Can we please cross that bridge if and when we get to it? You just said you would explain that I want to meet her before beginning treatment, and I appreciate that. I really do… so thank you,” I said.

“Fine,” she said with a smirk as I headed back to the whiteboard to resume my impromptu lesson on relativity. As I rejoined the group, another patient asked me how long I had been working at MeadowWood.

“Me? Working here?” I asked smiling. “I’m a patient just like you brother!” I said.

“If you’re a patient here… I’m the Pope,” he replied.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you… your Holiness,” I responded, smiling even wider and winking.

About five minutes later, the staffer called me over again and told me that Dr. Ekong had confirmed that I was to begin treatment immediately. She said if I refused to take the Risperdal, that Dr. Ekong had instructed her to give me an injection of Haldol. I told her that I would not willingly take any medication before having the chance to speak with Dr. Ekong, but added that I would not physically resist being injected against my will. I asked the staffer if I could make a phone call before being given the injection. She said yes, and I called my father and explained to him what was going on.

Five minutes later, in a private room, a woman dressed like a nurse gave me an injection of Haldol. After giving me the shot, she began preparing a second injection.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s called Cogentin. It’s to counteract the side-effects of the Haldol,” the nurse said.

“What side effects?” I asked nervously as I felt my pulse quicken.

“Muscle spasms… muscle rigidity… stuff like that,” she said. Then she injected me with the Cogentin shot.

I was already feeling dizzy and nauseous just seconds later as I went back into the common room. I walked right by the patients still gathered around the whiteboard, ignoring their calls to rejoin them, and headed straight for my bed in my room. I laid down, my whole world spinning, and quickly lost consciousness. The day following my harrowing experience with Haldol I began swallowing the Risperdal tablets originally prescribed for me by Dr. Ekong. I’m grateful that I didn’t know then what I know now: having Haldol injected into me and swallowing a single Risperdal tablet could have killed me via Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome.

Imagine my utter lack of surprise when Dr. Ekong released me from my involuntary psychiatric care experience ten days after you committed me. This was the same day that, had I not been released, my case would have been reviewed by a judge in a court of law.

I don’t believe it was a coincidence in timing.

Imagine if judges in our legal system could imprison suspects and order them to be injected with potentially life-threatening substances without meeting or speaking with them. Imagine if imprisoned criminal suspects and criminals were financially responsible for paying fees for being in prison, including one to the judge who jailed them!

I do not blame you or Dr. Ekong for treating me as you did. I blame the poorly designed system that empowered you to mistreat me as you patently did. I share this true story publicly with the intention of trying to improve an improvable system.

I harbor zero ill will for you or for anyone else involved in my mental health care mistreatment. I believe that you and Dr. Ekong were necessarily influenced by forces of institutional corruption at work within our mental health care system.

Robert Whitaker and Lisa Cosgrove have written masterfully on this subject in Psychiatry Under the Influence: Institutional Corruption, Social Injury, and Prescriptions for Reform. I’m playing my role in affecting change by highlighting a perfect example of what institutional corruption in psychiatry looks like in reality.

I don’t seek attention for my anecdotal experience with mental health care mistreatment for the purpose of retributive justice against you, or for sympathy for myself, and unlike some survivors of less than optimal mental health care, I do not want to burn the existing system to the ground.

Rather, my motivation is to increase awareness about human rights violations occurring within our mental health care system in order to inspire social change and systemic reform. I can’t help but wish that I had been compelled to share this true story earlier. Dr. Caroline Ekong might still be alive and Christopher Frick might not be in custody for the rest of his life, if I had done so.

As you must know, in October of 2015, Christopher Frick, at age 21, stabbed Dr. Caroline Ekong to death, three years after she committed him to the Rockford Center, claiming that he was a danger to himself. I share the true story of my forced care at the hands of you and Dr. Ekong to highlight her tragic death with the aim of preventing others like it.

Despite the fact that she ordered that I be treated before ever meeting or speaking with me, I saw her as a caring and conscientious mental health care professional. Despite the fact that you decided to hospitalize me against my will before you examined me, and despite the blatant incompetence or dishonesty you clearly documented on my committal paperwork, I see you too as a caring and conscientious mental health care professional.

I share this true story, Dr. Marcus, so that you, and other doctors empowered by the state to suspend people’s liberty, will be less likely to use that authority in a way that leads some patients, to want to kill their psychiatrists.

Caroline Ekong and Christopher Frick were both victims of an improvable mental health care system. You and I are brothers on the front line in the battle of trying to bend the U.S. suicide rate curve, and I am in a special position, given my professional experience in systems quality assurance to provide valuable feedback on the mental health care system.

Feel free to consider me your personal Nellie Bly.

You necessarily took action to have the police waiting outside your office prior to your examination of me, and to this day, you and I have still never exchanged a single word about my unauthorized visit to CIA headquarters in 2002.

Four federal CIA police officers and a staffer from the CIA questioned me for about three hours with a degree of professionalism that still blows my mind, especially considering that I pulled this stunt just forty-one days before the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It’s worth pointing out that these men, despite the fact that I was in possession of a controlled substance when I illegally trespassed at the CIA, decided to release me on my own recognizance versus throw me into a jail cell for the night, pending arraignment.

Things played out the way they did for me at the CIA because the people there that I spoke with were open to hearing a reasonable explanation for my actions… which is precisely what they received from me… and precisely why they let me go.

You and Dr. Ekong, on the other hand, were patently not open to even attempting to reason with me. You failed to give me a chance to explain my actions before stripping me of my liberty, and she treated me with a potentially life-threatening medication before ever meeting or speaking with me.

It is clear to me, as I am confident that it will be to many others, that the forces of institutional corruption in psychiatry were at work in your respective decisions.

The knowledge you had about what happened at the CIA was the by-product of a five-person game of Telephone or Whisper Down the Lane.

I told my father some of what happened that day, without much explanation as to why. My father told my mother. My mother told my brother. And then my afraid-for-the-life-of-her-son mother told you. You did what you did, and then Dr. Ekong became Telephone / Whisper Down the Lane player number six.

While you were sympathetic about the anxiety experienced by your patient’s mother, you failed to even try to understand me, your patient, whom I believe you assumed was psychotic.

The fact that I was exhibiting some of the symptoms of a mental disorder described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — a nosology essentially abandoned due to its lack of validity in 2013 by Dr. Thomas Insel, the former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health — is a pathetically inadequate justification for involuntarily subjecting me to forced treatment that could have ended my life.

If you failed to notice this label on the committal form: “as observed during my examination of the patient” you were reprehensibly incompetent when you filled out the form.

Not one scintilla of information about my unauthorized visit to the CIA or about anyone breaking into my home was provided by me to you.

If you did notice the aforementioned label, then you were reprehensibly dishonest by claiming that any of that information was discussed during your “examination” of me.

Why I willingly trespassed at the CIA with cannabis and a big poster of Einstein with his tongue sticking out was, and still is an absolute mystery to you.

I invite you to speak with me, in front of a live microphone, for a podcast — a frank talk about mental health — to provide me the opportunity that you denied me years ago.

If you agree to meet with me, I will also explain my version of the stories that you were apparently told by my mother and/or brother that prompted you to write down what you wrote about me on the aforementioned form.

I genuinely believe that a public conversation between you and me could be valuable for people besides you and me, and that is my aim — to create value for others as I try to improve the mental health care system in this country.

If you have no interest in engaging in a public conversation with me, to provide the reasons why you behaved as you did, I will offer up my best guess as to what I believe motivated you, when I explain my own actions, in a subsequent message.

Sincerely,
Francesco Bellafante

I sent this letter to Dr. Marcus after posting it online in early 2017, and I have yet to receive a reply.

Earlier this year, the launch of Van Jones’ Redemption Project rekindled my desire to speak with the psychiatrist who civilly committed me, and the idea of The Nellie Bly Project occurred to me for the first time. I already had the domain name iamnelliebly.com, so I created a landing page and installed a blog on the site, and I created a Twitter account for it.

Finally, President Trump’s rhetoric around mental illness and the recent Washington Post publication of Sara Pearl Kenigsberg’s article about involuntary confinement reminded me about the opportunity I have to make a valuable contribution to a conversation about what mental illness is, and how we, as a society, can and should aim to help people grappling with it.


I am actively seeking collaborators and contributors interested in the mission of The Nellie Bly Project: exposing injustice in mental healthcare with the aim of inspiring systemic reform.

Ideally, this project will become a series like that which Van Jones created, with a moderator facilitating conversations between people like myself and Dr. Marcus.

Ultimately, I want to hear from people who have had experiences similar to mine in order to change how we, as a society, handle situations that result in involuntary admittances to mental health care providers.

Dinah Miller and Annette Hanson recently co-authored an important book on the subject of involuntary psychiatric care that provides a nuanced view on the subject by examining it from multiple perspectives.

A passage in the Foreword for the book authored by Pete Earley, a reporter and mental health advocate highlights a guiding belief behind The Nellie Bly Project.

“While practical information gives Committed its spine, it is the emotions that we feel in reading patients’ firsthand accounts that prick at the conscience and ultimately distinguish this book from some impersonal, analytical tome. That is one of the many reasons that this book should be read — because emotions lie at the heart of the involuntary commitment process, whether they are expressed in the angry voice of an unwilling patient or the anguished voice of a parent, spouse, sibling, friend, child or professional caregiver.“

Pete Earley writing in the Foreword to Committed: The Battle over Involuntary Psychiatric Care by Dinah Miller and Annette Hanson

As far as contributors go, The Nellie Bly Project is looking for firsthand accounts of injustice occurring within the mental healthcare system that will “prick at the conscience” of people curious to know more about personal narratives about being involuntarily committed.

Whether you are an “unwilling patient” like I was years ago, or you are someone struggling with the damaging effects of trauma or any other problem described as a mental health condition, and your civil rights were violated by a mental health care provider, and you are willing to share about your experience in service of making a positive difference for others (anonymously if you prefer) please get in touch with me at incredulity at gmail dot com.

As far as collaborators go, Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, better known as Nellie Bly, shared what she learned through firsthand experience in the mental health care system through writing.

The Nellie Bly Project will utilize any media available to increase public awareness about injustices occurring in the mental health care system and to inspire systemic reform.

If you are a creative with a passion for this cause who is interested in collaborating, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.