A recent report from the United Nations (U.N.) states that many so-called treatments for addiction and for autism are not only unhelpful, but are akin to torture. These treatments are found in practice throughout the world, including the United States. The report was completed by the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, for the Human Rights Council and was released in Geneva recently.
The job of Mendez is to bring international attention to situations in which inhumane practices are being used. In the current report, he targeted health care settings and treatments and practices which are considered to be inhumane and similar to torture. He found such practices in various places around the world, particularly in Asia, and surprisingly to some, in the U.S.
Addiction in Asia
One of the biggest issues uncovered by Mendez in the report is the treatment that addicts receive in several countries in Asia. A common practice in these countries is to round up drug addicts and homeless people alike and to force them into “treatment” centers. In these facilities, the captives, who are given no choice as to whether they leave or stay, endure beatings, canings, whippings, and other physical punishments. Sexual abuse is prevalent and the so-called patients are intentionally subjected to humiliating situations. They also participate in forced labor.
These treatment facilities in China, Laos, Vietnam, and other Asian countries practice a type of physical discipline as treatment for addiction. This includes military boot camp-style drills, physical beatings, forced labor, and even electroshock therapy. None of the techniques used are backed by medical evidence of any efficacy in beating addiction.
Addiction in the United States
While the examples from Asia are not seen as severely in the U.S., there are drug addiction treatment facilities that use similar boot camp-style tactics. Tough love techniques are used in these facilities in an attempt to cure addiction, but there is no scientific evidence to prove that they work.
What Mendez found more prevalent in the U.S. is the denial of maintenance drugs for addicts. Maintenance drugs are those that help addicts stay clean and resist the temptation to use again. For example, methadone is a heroin substitute that has helped many addicts stay sober for years. Scientific and medical research has concluded numerous times that maintenance drugs are an effective way to help addicts beat their addictions. Buprenorphine is another common maintenance drug.
In the report, Mendez lists this denial of maintenance drugs as a human rights violation. Many prisoners are not allowed to receive the drugs. They are also banned in many treatment facilities in spite of the evidence that they work. Many experts in addiction cling to an outdated philosophy that recovering addicts should have zero access to any kind of drug. The U.S. is not the only offender on this count. In Russia, maintenance drugs are entirely banned.
Autism Treatment in the United States
Another disturbing finding of the report is the treatment of children with autism in the U.S. This developmental disorder is still not well understood and treatments are varied, but one in particular is cited by Mendez as being torture. One treatment facility in Washington, Judge Rotenberg Center, uses electric shocks to treat children with autism. According to the report, this is the only facility in the world still using such an inhumane practice.
Mendez and advocates for the disabled have called for the cessation of this treatment at the center, but it continues today. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the center and Medicaid and Medicare have removed funding. Parents of many of the children treated there insist that the shock therapy helps, yet the center has never released data proving the efficacy of the treatment.
The most recent report from the U.N.’s Human Rights Council should be a wake-up call for leaders, policy-makers, and addiction and mental health professionals around the world. Those who suffer from addiction and mental illness are some of the most vulnerable people and many are being tortured in the name of a cure. The report should bring awareness to the issue and bring up the possibility of banning certain treatments. It will hopefully also shed light on the need for the implementation of treatments that are backed by scientific evidence.