Mental Health Alert

Woman’s harrowing account of forced sterilisation when a psychiatric patient

A woman has written a harrowing and unparalleled account of how she was forcibly sterilised when a psychiatric patient.

In a first-person telling of what is recognised as a shameful episode in psychiatry’s history, Dorothea Buck-Zerchin writes how, when aged 19, she was sterilised in a German hospital in 1936 during Nazi rule.

Dorothea Buck-Zerchin, aged 90 and who this year presented a key-note speech at the World Psychiatric Association’s congress in Dresden, Germany, calls upon psychiatry to be an “empirical science based on the experiences of patients.”

Buck-Zerchin’s account is in a chapter in a new book claiming to document “proven alternatives to psychiatry” from around the world. She writes that the sterilisation, given after she was admitted for psychosis, was hidden from her.

“Even after the operation, it was not a doctor or a nurse who told me what had been done to me, but a fellow female patient,” she writes. “I was distraught”

She also says fellow patients at the Christian hospital in Bethel were routinely told their sterilisation scars were due to an appendectomy.

Buck-Zerchin’s chapter – today published exclusively in full at – includes other incidents of inhumane treatment.

“Rest was given [to patients] with wet packs and with sedating injections of paraldehyde. A wet pack was made of cold, wet sheets bound so tightly that one could no longer move. From our body temperature, the sheets would become first warm and then hot. I would cry out in rage at this senseless restraint in these hot sheets.”

Buck-Zerchin writes that, during the Nazi eugenics “euthanasia” policy, 300,000 asylum and nursing care home patients were gassed, poisoned or starved to death.

Buck-Zerchin, a mental health campaigner in Germany for more than 30 years, is opposed to biological psychiatry.

“The decades of backwardness of this kind of psychiatry have not been overcome despite considerable efforts in recent years.

“It remains devoid of conversation and uses medication even under coercion and restraint just to fight the symptoms, rather than aim for understanding,” she writes.

Buck-Zerchin backs alternative approaches, such as “trialogue seminars”. Practiced in Germany these involve people diagnosed with psychosis, family members, carers, friends, and professionals meeting informally in neutral settings to discuss mental health issues, ranging from prejudices to neuroleptic medication.

Buck-Zerchin’s account is included in “Alternatives Beyond Psychiatry”, published by Peter Lehmann Publishing.

Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America, says the initiatives, such as user-run services, described in the book “have a track record of helping people get better.”

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