Woman who suffered 12 years of electroshock therapy for being gay speaks of 'horrendous' journey to redress

Sixty-eight-year-old Joan Bellingham is one of the many survivors this week sharing her experience of abuse in state care and her experiences in seeking redress.

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The woman was one of many speaking at a public hearing about her fight for compensation. Source: 1 NEWS

By Vandhna Bhan

Over the course of a dozen years, she was subjected to over 200 electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) sessions which have left permanent scarring to her scalp from the burns.

During the 1970s, Bellingham was training to be a nurse at Burwood Hospital before her homosexuality became a contentious issue for tutors and students, leading her to Princess Margaret Hospital.

“I was told I needed treatment and was taken to Princess Margaret Hospital that same day, no clothes or anything, and no choice in the matter,” Bellingham told the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care. 

“I didn’t realise it at the time I’d spend the next 12 or so years there.”

She never got to finish her training as a nurse.

She quoted her medical reports today, saying the range of drugs given to her were “excessive”.

She was never told what they were, what the side affects were and how to take them safely. 

ECT was also done without explanation and against her will.

“It felt like razor blades going through my body,” Bellingham said.

After shock therapy she would vomit, cry and beg them not to do it again. Sometimes it would leave her blind for hours if not days. But no one listened to her pleas.

“The most damaging effect is my memory loss. I often find I cannot remember old friends.”

For 15 years she was in and out of hospital, within which time Bellingham said she became so “institutionalised” she wouldn’t want to go back home and would begin to ask for ECT.

“I ended up hating myself so much it was a form of self-loathing.”

While her parents were concerned, they never questioned the practices of doctors, who were “like gods”, she said.

Since her last admission in 1982, Bellingham said it's been a long road to get recognition and compensation for her experiences.

She made numerous attempts through local MPs, lawyers, GPs, when finally in 2012 the Crown delivered an apology alongside a $4000 wellness payment. But that wasn’t enough for the time lost in Bellingham’s life.

“I would have liked to have monetary means to perhaps venture further. The money stresses I wouldn’t have had if I had a profession today,” she told 1 NEWS.

Bellingham said the Royal Commission investigating abuse in state care shows that “there is want for change”.

She is pleading for a change to processing times and better compensation for victims, so that no one has to go through the "horrendous, long journey" she endured "for promises that were never kept and people who I don't know whether they'll believe me or not".

But for Bellingham, this road has come to an end.

“It’s put my mind to rest. I’ve met so many wonderful people in the last two days and I just feel it’s the end of a chapter and I’m very thankful for what’s happened today.”

The Royal Commission is set to run over several years, hearing from hundreds of witnesses with an initial report to be provided by the end of this year and a final report to be delivered to Government in 2023.