Family and supporters of deceased English teacher urge Japan to minimize use of physical restraints at mental health institutions

by Magdalena Osumi and Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writers

Family members of a New Zealand man who died last year after he was strapped down at a mental hospital in Kanagawa Prefecture submitted a petition to the health ministry Friday calling for Japan to take measures to restrict use of restraints at mental institutions.

In the petition, signed by 31 psychiatrists from the United States, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Japan, they urged the government to set up an international panel to improve the nation’s restraint practices at mental institutions.

Kelly Savage, 27, died in May last year only days after being admitted to Yamato Hospital, a privately run psychiatric institution in Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture, after a manic episode linked to bipolar disorder.

After Savage was found in a state of cardiac arrest 10 days later, he was rushed to another hospital in Yamato where he was resuscitated. He died from severe brain damage several days later.

Savage’s mother Martha and his brother Patrick submitted the petition to the health ministry. “What we want in the panel are independence and international perspectives,” which would enable experts to come up with alternatives to restraints in comparison with more progressive practices abroad, Patrick told a news conference.

“Cases like this happened frequently abroad once upon a time, but investigations done by independent and international groups, not internal review, would shed a spotlight on them.”

The use of restraints has been harshly criticized, but in Japan hospitals are allowed to restrain patients to prevent them from harming themselves. Toshio Hasegawa, a professor of health sciences at Kyorin University in Tokyo who is working to reduce the use of restraints, expressed his concern about the growing number of cases in Japan where restraints are being used. A record high 10,933 patients were restrained in 2016.

Hasegawa, who was also at the news conference, urged the government to revise relevant legislation to minimize the period of time patients are restrained. In a 2013 peer-review study cited in the petition, most developed countries ban restraints or limit the practice to up to a few hours.

“We’ve been told that the (health) ministry was acting on it but that it takes time and they asked us for patience,” Patrick said. “He was my only brother and my best friend. … I want to do my part to make sure others wouldn’t have to suffer this kind of tragedy so that my brother’s death will not be in vain.”

The Savages allege the use of prolonged restraints could have led to the formation of deep vein thrombosis, a condition in which blood clots block the flow of blood, leading to his death.

Yamato Hospital claims the treatment was appropriate. The family is not planning to sue the hospital, Patrick said.

Savage, who had a history of mental issues in New Zealand, came to Japan in August 2015 under the government-sponsored JET programme to teach English in Shibushi, Kagoshima Prefecture. “We were horrified that we thought that he was going to be safe in hospital. We were sure that we were doing the right thing because in New Zealand he had similar problems and the hospital helped him,” Martha said. “We had no idea that Japan would do that to him.”