Janet Meagher AM is a leader. A teacher, librarian, manager, advocate and founder of consumer organisations.
She also lived at Gladesville hospital for around ten years of her life. Following a difficult childhood, periods of immense emotional stress and a number of breakdowns, Janet accessed several private facilities before being sent to Gladesville hospital.
“It was a point of no return kind of place,” she says. “You were placed into Gladesville because your emotional life was out of control.” There Janet met many caring and dedicated staff members and made a number of lifelong friendships. She also encountered what she describes as ‘monsters.’
Janet, along with many others, experienced significant abuse whilst a patient of the hospital.
“When you have people who have no legal status, like us patients, there’s just no safety. The thing that stands out for me, is that people like me who have histories of trauma and abuse, then received further abuse while in care. That’s what stays with me.”
At one point, Janet aspired to become well enough to leave the hospital and was encouraged by one of her doctors who told her that ‘one person can change the world’ and talked to her about understanding codes of conduct, ethics and the relevant mental health legislation.
It was through this guidance that Janet became interested in the things that controlled and enabled the behaviours of institutions.
“I thank that doctor every day for giving me thirst for that knowledge. She encouraged me to use my brain and to keep trying and this became a purpose for me.”
Janet says that the environment at Gladesville hospital was a difficult one and she was too afraid to use the information she was learning while still at the hospital. She intended to use the information when she was released, and dreamt of closing the place for good.
“I am adamant that we ought never open institutions for vulnerable people. No-one should ever be institutionalised. I have done a lot of research and I know that the more institutionalised things are, the more removed they are from human rights and true care,” she says.
One of the biggest turning points for Janet was when she got a job as a library assistant. She describes this as ‘the beginning of her ticket out’ which eventually led to her being able to move into a group home and later, get formal qualifications as a librarian.
Janet acknowledges that the impact of her time at Gladesville hospital still stays with her today, as she saw the place as representative of the worst and best of people and of the disregard for human rights in the name of treatment and care.
“I have some good stories, of the life and characters within these grounds. But, for many, this hospital is symbol of the cruelty and the victimisation of the people that were already victims.”
Janet says she has made lifelong friends from her time there, as she notes there is a closeness and camaraderie that develops when you ‘live through these things together.’
“It is their stories that are the fuel for my anger about how services and systems have to change. People should never be harmed by their care and treatment.”
Janet has become an activist, influencing decisions at the highest levels, including through the National Mental Health Commission and at the World Federation for Mental Health.
It is the memory of the many who have been lost, that inspires Janet to keep advocating.
“This memorial represents the losses of people whose memory I hold in my heart, those who were ignored, were harmed or died as a result of their incarceration. Acknowledging their memory and their courage are what drives me.”