Tribute to Whistleblower Nurse Who Exposed Deadly Drug and Shock Practice: Deep Sleep Therapy

The horrors of Chelmsford would never have been exposed had it not been for the courage of one person, nurse Rosa Nicholson.”[1]

After a friend died following deep sleep treatment (DST)—a psychotropic drug-cocktail-induced coma combined with electroshock treatment—Australian nurse Rosa Nicholson spent 18 months trying to get a job at Chelmsford private psychiatric hospital in New South Wales, where DST was practiced—to expose and get the practice shut down.  In mid-1977 an advertisement in a Sydney newspaper gave her that chance.

DST was developed by Dr. Harry Bailey, considered by his peers as a “White Knight of psychiatry.” Apart from the potentially lethal combination of drugs he prescribed as part of DST, Bailey left pre-signed drug forms at the hospital for staff to admit patients to the “Zombie” (DST) room and knock them into the drugged coma. The Daily Telegraph reported what Rosa had established that the electroshock was given “often without patient consent, anesthetic or muscle relaxants—with devastating outcomes. Mainly because of the barbiturates, fit and healthy patients would leave either dead, or with pneumonia, kidney damage, bowel hemorrhages, deep vein thrombosis [blood clots] and other ailments.” Daily Telegraph journalist Janet Fife-Yeomans often covered the story and co-authored Deep Sleep: Harry Bailey And the Scandal of Chelmsford. She said Rosa went into the hospital undercover to work and her secretly photocopied documents revealed that patients were not giving informed consent. [2]

As other media reported, “For the next [year] she smuggled hospital and patient records out of Chelmsford, photocopied and returned them. She remained undercover for a decade, leaking damaging evidence against [psychiatrist Dr. Harry] Bailey to those who would listen. [3] The group that first listened was not psychiatrists or health officials entrusted with safeguarding patients’ lives, but the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), a mental health industry watchdog.  And they acted because patients were dying.

Psychologist Philip Hickey, Ph.D. wrote in 2020, “Why didn’t the psychiatrists stop the procedure sooner—after one death, say, or, better still, not start it at all, since the dangers were already well known?…Why did it have to fall to a nurse—Rosa Nicholson—to obtain the necessary information surreptitiously and blow the whistle?  How much longer would the carnage have continued had she not taken those brave initiatives?”[4]

As a new member of CCHR in NSW in 1978, I was documenting how electroshock was damaging and ruining lives—working to get reforms to the Mental Health Act to ban it.

Rosa had left employment at Chelmsford Hospital when I met her and after she’d handed over photocopied DST records to a predecessor working in CCHR, who, in turn, gave the documents to the NSW Attorney General, Mr. Frank Walker. Unlike his health counterpart, the NSW Health Minister, Mr. Walker acted on the evidence to protect patients’ lives from DST when the Health Minister didn’t.  One of hundreds of articles on DST, said, “What made Chelmsford a national scandal was not that this happened, but that the Australian government did nothing about it. Despite the deaths, and the live patients’ complaints, the hospital passed inspection.”[5]

Thereafter, Rosa and I worked together for many years and were friends before, during and after an NSW Royal Commission inquiry (1988-1990) finally lifted the lid on the high death rate from DST—in fact, they attributed 48 deaths directly or indirectly to DST.

In 1993, before I moved from Australia to the United States, CCHR paid special tribute to Rosa when celebrating 15 years of CCHR’s campaigns and reforms, which she had clearly contributed to. On the occasions when I returned to Sydney, Rosa, who by then had suffered a stroke and other illnesses, including diabetes, was a resident in nursing homes.  She remembered very little of Chelmsford, other than in a video interview with her, she told me that Dr. Bailey was “evil.” Instead of reminding her of the DST horrors, Rosa was taken to the local park, to lunches and to the home of a friend to talk about all things pleasant.

In 1980, I provided copies of Rosa’s photocopied records to 60 Minutes—described by them as a “sizable dossier on Chelmsford Hospital.” Much of their information had come from a nurse in the hospital, it would report. “She had supplied documentary evidence that patient histories were written in pencil so that they could be altered later if necessary and that patients were being given drugs far in excess of the approved dosages.”

60 Minutes’ award-winning expose on Chelmsford also showed how “Politicians had been warned that things were dangerously out of control…The psychiatric profession closed ranks around their colleague [Bailey]. It had been known for years that something was gravely amiss at Chelmsford but 60 Minutes could not find a psychiatrist to speak out individually about it on camera. In fact, CCHR provided its co-founder, Dr. Thomas Szasz, a then professor of psychiatry based in New York, U.S., to comment.

The Royal Australian College of Psychiatrists put up their President, Dr Richard Ball, as a spokesman. A transcript of the show follows:

Ball: The system works in so far as we require complaints upon which we can act.

60 Minutes: Who rings the alarm bells? If there’s a problem, if there’s a danger, if there’s reason for concern, who rings the alarm bells?

Ball: If the situation were such as you describe in relation to any kind of treatment, this may be from professional colleagues.

60 Minutes: Have you had any complaints about this from colleagues?

Ball: No.

60 Minutes: Our evidence is that one psychiatrist complained in writing to the college about the practice at that hospital.

Ball: I have not, as Federal President, had this matter brought to my attention in the way you suggest, this does not mean that it has not been brought to the branch level and will in due course come to us.

60 Minutes: The letter was written two years ago.

Ball: I’m not aware of that letter.

60 Minutes: And yet the College is in the business of self-regulation. Isn’t that part of your job?

Ball: That is correct.

“The Chelmsford Scream” won an Australian Logie for 60 Minutes.

Rosa should never have been put in a position where she felt she needed to entrench herself in Chelmsford hospital to collect evidence to provide to the government to act, when the psychiatric profession failed to prevent DST’s use. She was one of two nursing whistleblowers I had met and worked with that lived at risk of being harassed by psychiatric staff whose practices they exposed.  But the reforms that occurred because of their speaking out were legendary in the mental health field—although 40 years later may not be recognized.

In fear for her life, I had kept Rosa’s identity a secret until Health Department officials I trusted and police took action against the DST psychiatrists and doctors—one of the first actions reopening coroners’ inquests into DST deaths and a manslaughter charge against Dr. Bailey over the death of his patient, Miriam Podio.[6]

I remember there were allegations that Dr. Bailey shot up a residence over the suicide death of one of his patients, Sharon Hamilton, with whom he’d had a sexual affair—and electroshocked her when she became vocal about it.

Only three journalists and several NSW Health officials and police officers knew of Rosa’s identity. A Chelmsford hospital doctor twice hired private investigators trying to discover the source of CCHR’s evidence against the facility and doctors.  On the first occasion in 1983, a person posing as a reporter said he was doing a story for “News Limited,” and more, specifically, Kerry Packer. So poorly executed was this sleuth effort that he’d not worked out that Mr. Packer owned a completely different news corporation. The second time, in 1986, the PI, posing as a freelance reporter and former Army intelligence officer, was allegedly paid AUS$5000. Health and police officials helped CCHR find his true identity, after he threatened that a “contract” had been put out on my life. [7]  That “contract” was never verified and most likely, an effort for CCHR to stop its fight for justice for the Chelmsford survivors.

The veil of professional repute that protected Bailey and others unraveled due to Rosa, who documented treatment irregularities.[8]

Rosa’s courage found evidence and prompted investigations, including into:

  • “Staff said Bailey had sex with his female patients, often ordering them sent by taxi to his office or home late at night. Commissioner Justice John Slattery said in his 12-volume [government] report there were ‘strong suspicions’ that Bailey was involved in the suicide of his patient and lover, singer Sharon Hamilton. Bailey was the sole beneficiary of Hamilton’s will.”[9]
  • From “Australian deep sleep report awakens anger.”BMJ Vol 302, Jan 1991, “Some [of the ‘patients’] underwent psychosurgery, of which Bailey was a leading proponent. He believed that one indication for cerebral surgery was homosexuality.”  Justice Slattery reported that “Dr Bailey had falsified death certificates and had lied to coronial inquests going back as far as 1967.”[10]

Some 152 former DST patients were awarded payouts totaling $5.5 million by the NSW Victims [of Crime] Compensation Tribunal.

As one article on the Chelmsford scandal summarized, “Its outcome was rightly not just condemnation of Bailey—but rather, an investigation into how mental health services should be regulated so as to prevent such individuals from so perniciously undermining the practitioner’s Hippocratic promise to ‘do no harm.’”[11]

Rosa Nicholson first championed the need for deep sleep treatment to be banned, working with CCHR. But it was not a single effort.  Other credit must go to the staunch and persistent actions of former Chelmsford patient, the late Barry Hart and other DST survivors comprising the Chelmsford Victims Action Group (CVAG), NSW Members of Parliament, John Hatton and the late Pat Rogan (and his personal assistant, Margaret Como), lawyers with the Public Interest Advocacy Center (PIAC) and, journalists Toni Eatts, Ross Jenkins, Robert Haupt and John O’Neil, and Janet Fife Yeomans to name but a few, who saw the truth and didn’t back off from making it known.

The late Justice John Slattery, who headed the Royal Commission into DST addressed Rosa’s actions, vindicating her:

  • “I carefully observed Miss Nicholson in the witness box and I formed a favorable impression of her. She was cross examined with some vigor about the deceit she used to obtain her job at the hospital and the fact that she had taken records.” Rosa told the court, “I am not happy about having to be in that situation. I would have been much happier if something had been done about Chelmsford so I didn’t feel the need to do something to protect the patients and future people who needed help.”

Chelmsford is today synonymous with madness, barbarism and horror; of psychiatry run amok, of bizarre experiments that, one magazine claimed, “rival those performed by Dr. Josef Mengele in Nazi Germany.” Former NSW Health Minister, Peter Collins, called it “the darkest episode of the history of psychiatry in this country.”

Rosa was key among those fighting for justice for patients damaged by DST. The Chelmsford scandal continues to serve as a warning against damaging psychiatric practices still being used today. In the case of one of these, electroshock treatment, I am sure Rosa would have agreed that this barbarity should be banned.

References:

[1] Philip Hickey, Ph.D.  “Deep Sleep “Therapy” in Australia in the 1960s & ’70s: Could Something Like This Happen Today?,” 27 Aug. 2020, https://www.madinamerica.com/2020/08/deep-sleep-therapy-australia/

[2] “Sydney’s shameful asylums: The silent houses of pain where inmates were chained and sadists reigned,” Daily Telegraph, 3 Mar. 2015, https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/sydneys-shameful-asylums-the-silent-houses-of-pain-where-inmates-were-chained-and-sadists-reigned/news-story/b4205dc9a17e8ee0763711d93d720d04

[3] https://www.madinamerica.com/2020/08/deep-sleep-therapy-australia/

[4] Philip Hickey, Ph.D.  “Deep Sleep “Therapy” in Australia in the 1960s & ’70s: Could Something Like This Happen Today?,” 27 Aug. 2020, https://www.madinamerica.com/2020/08/deep-sleep-therapy-australia/

[5] https://derwombat.net/2018/03/19/the-chelmsford-hospital-nightmare/

[6] http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bailey-harry-richard-12162

[7] “Security Firm’s intriguing work for high fliers,” The Sun Herald, 13 Nov. 1988; Intellisec Confidential Report, “Chelmsford Private Hospital,” 14 Apr. 1986, admitted to the NSW Royal Commission inquiry into Deep Sleep Treatment.

[8] http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bailey-harry-richard-12162

[9] Philip Hickey, Ph.D.  “Deep Sleep “Therapy” in Australia in the 1960s & ’70s: Could Something Like This Happen Today?,” 27 Aug. 2020, https://www.madinamerica.com/2020/08/deep-sleep-therapy-australia/

[10] Philip Hickey, Ph.D.  “Deep Sleep “Therapy” in Australia in the 1960s & ’70s: Could Something Like This Happen Today?,” 27 Aug. 2020, https://www.madinamerica.com/2020/08/deep-sleep-therapy-australia/

[11] https://chelmsfordblog.wordpress.com/

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