Director of Armenian psych hospital reportedly forcing patients to herd, graze animals as "work therapy"

October 5, 2012

It appears that the director of the Vardenis Psychiatric Hospital is forcing patients to work as animal herders.

Director Nver Hovhannisyan took a group of patients up to the Nerkin Shorzha village and told them to start grazing the sheep and cows. The patients must also milk the animals, some of which belong to the hospital, but others belong to Hovhannisyan and his friends.

We apologize to the relatives of the patients for publishing their names and the disorders they suffer from.

When we reached the village by car, we got out and started to climb to the nearby mountain on foot where we spotted the grazing animals.

The first person we met was Hounan, who was tending a flock of sheep. We had a tough time conversing with the man. He could only get out one intelligible sentence. After that, it was a mish-mash of unrelated sentences.

Hounan Navoyan told us he was 45, from the Gegharkounik village of Astghadzor, and suffered from schizophrenic.

Further down, Moushegh Bazoyan was grazing cows. He’s an epileptic.

We know most of the patients by name since we’ve been dealing with the issues of the Vardenis Hospital starting in 1997. Moushegh is one of our old acquaintances. After a welcoming hug, Moushegh told us how he wound up at the hospital.

The man pleaded with us to talk with hospital management to get him transferred back to the institution rather than working high up in the mountains. He told us that employees even beat the patients.

"Those guys hit me and broke all my teeth," said 49 year-old Moushegh from the town of Hoktemberyan. He told us his relatives have no idea that he’s now grazing animals in Nerkin Shorzha.

The patients told us that they are given nothing to eat for lunch.

Stepan, the third patient we met, was working in the barn. He’s schizophrenic as well.

We were told that a fourth patient, Tereza Minasyan, was recently transferred back to the hospital. She had been milking cows in the village but fell sick. Tereza now must undergo an operation for an inflamed large intestine. The hospital says it will foot the bill but the woman is still waiting.

It’s cold up in the mountains and the work is hard. The patients live in squalid conditions.

While it’s true that work therapy is an accepted form of rehabilitation, practiced by the Vardenis Hospital in the past, it was only for an hour or two a day and under a physician’s supervision.

The Vardenis institution is the final stop for all those deemed to be untreatable. Other hospitals send problem patients to Vardenis. The patients here are heavily medicated and looked after.

Those working in Nerkin Shorzha aren’t provided any medical supervision. The director’s friends are the only outsiders monitoring the patients. You can bet these people are more interested in the work, and not the health, of the patients.

Recently, the RA Control Chamber had sent a team to inspect the Vardenis Hospital. Before the team called for a roll-call of the patients, management had brought those working in the village back to the ward. When the inspectors left, the patients were sent back to the village.

The Vardenis Hospital is run by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, The ministry also carries out periodic inspections. During such inspections, hospital staff often fill in for those patients working in the village.

We contacted the ministry, wanting to find out if its inspectors had uncovered any violations. Hasmik Khachatryan, who runs the Public Relations Unit, told us that the ministry was still compiling data from the last inspection and that their findings weren’t ready for publication. The minister was away from his desk and would be back by the week’s end.

Director Nver Hovhannisyan denied that any patients were working in Nerkin Shorzha grazing livestock. He told us that even though he was new to the job, everything was above board and normal.

We told him tat we had visited the village and saw several patients there. We asked if it was a form of therapy. He answered that it was, but that they are only sent to get a change of scenery and walk in the fresh air.

- You send them to Shorzha for walks?

- We send them all over. Not just to Shorzha. It’s medical therapy.

- We also saw the patients grazing your animals.

- Give me a break, already.

- Does the hospital have animals in Nerkin Shorzha?

- No.

- Do you own animals there?

- No.

- So what were your patients doing there?

- They weren’t our patients. Who gave you that info?

- Moushegh Bazoyan, Hounan Navoyan, Stepan and Tereza aren’t your patients?

- They’re all at the hospital now. They never were there on their own.

- But they are your patients?

- I can’t say at this moment. I don’t remember the names.

- What’s Tereza’s medical condition?

- Very good. It’s always been good.

Many in the neighboring villages know that patients from the psychiatric hospital are tending animals in Nerkin Shorzha. Even kids from the nearby village of Ayrk will tell you.

No one, however, seems overly concerned that some patients are forced to work for their room and board, or that hospital management are conveniently stretching the concept of "work therapy" for personal gain.

Source: Kristine Aghalaryan, Edik Baghdasaryan, Marine Madatyan, Saro Baghdasaryan,"Director Forces Vardenis Psychaitric Patients to Graze His Private Livestock," Hetq, September 18, 2012.


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