Psychiatric aspects of detention: illustrative case studies

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Abstract

Objective

Although the two political systems cannot be equated, the psychiatric and psychosocial issues raised by people detained under the migration regulations of the present Australian government, and those detained under the security legislation of the last apartheid government in South Africa, are similar in many aspects.

Method

We present two case scenarios representative of the cumulative clinical experience of the authors in their work (as part of their routine clinical practice and medical school experience) with asylum seekers and political detainees in acute psychiatric units in both South Africa and Australia.

Results

Similar issues raised included the validity of a psychiatric diagnosis in these patients and the debate this conundrum provoked among the multidisciplinary teams. The pressures placed on clinicians by politicians in terms of clinical management of hospitalized detainees raised similar ethical questions across both countries. The clinical syndromes of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder were similar. The effect of the ‘non-person’ status conferred upon refugees by the ‘temporary protection visa’ could be equated with the effect of ‘banning orders’ imposed on opponents of the Apartheid regime.

Conclusions

In South Africa, political detainees entered into the struggle expecting to face hardship and torture at the hands of the government of the time. Asylum seekers flee to Australia expecting support from a democratic system and generally had not prepared themselves for further incarceration and yet another political struggle. Despite this seemingly fundamental difference, the experiences of detainees across two very different political systems are remarkably similar.

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