Dr Stewart Hase - Psychologically Speaking

No excuse for cruelty

Over recent weeks there have been more reports in the media about the detrimental effects on the mental health of detainees in our version of concentration camps. Last week we heard about cruelty in nursing homes. And we are all aware of the problems of abuse in childrens homes in the past. It fascinates me that we are surprised that institutionalisation creates, of itself, special risks.

The psychological evidence has existed for over 40 years that most, apparently quite normal, people are capable of inflicting unusual pain and suffering on others. One famous study involved what was to be a simple week-long role play in which university students took the role of gaoler and inmate. After only a couple of days the experiment was quickly called off. The gaolers were being extremely cruel to the inmates in what was a clear abuse of power. The inmates began to exhibit unhealthy behaviour in response to being incarcerated.

Another very famous experiment was conducted by Stanley Milgram. He demonstrated that quite normal people are prepared to do quite cruel things to others if they are told to do so by someone who has authority. The interesting thing about this study was that the people who were prepared to be cruel were not psychopaths. They were just like you and me.

There are, of course, many real life examples of this. There were the concentration camps in WWII and prisons in general. My own experience of nursing in the old psychiatric hospitals in the sixties has left me with very unpleasant memories of mans inhumanity to man. Incidentally, closing down these places was the best thing that was ever done, except that governments under-funded and failed to substitute a viable community alternative.

The message in all this is that any type of institutionalised care needs to be scrutinised extremely carefully. The accreditation process that nursing homes now go through is a good example of this kind of scrutiny. As for our own concentration camps? Of course the inmates will be damaged and of course the treatment will be cruel.

I suspect that future historians will be very damning about this little piece of history. Mostly because we know it is cruel and there is no excuse.


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