#StickYourNeckOut

Lut Wouters and Willy Vandamme

Can you imagine entering a psychiatric hospital on a voluntary base and being compulsory hospitalized, isolated and restrained several hours later. It happened to Lieve, the daughter of Willy Vandamme (76) and Lut Wouters (70). The young woman refused to hand over her cell phone to a nurse. Ten days later she had to appear before the justice of the peace, in pajamas and barefoot, where the coercive measure was promptly extended. It took days before Willy and Lut found out that their daughter was tied up in a chilly room. They were not allowed to see her. They were not even allowed to talk to her on the phone.

The facts date from 2013. A year later, Lieve takes her own life, 28 years old. “The first time she went to a psychiatrist was eight years earlier,” says Lut. “Our daughter was someone who had a hard time finding her place in the world. When she suddenly felt confused, we took her to the doctor. That was the beginning of our torture in psychiatry.” The psychiatrist cannot say what exactly is going on that day. He prescribes heavy antipsychotics and sends her home. Not much later, the admissions and new pill prescriptions pile up. The medication has a huge effect on Lieve. She feels drowsy, develops physical complaints and not much later she makes her first suicide attempt. “I don’t feel like a human being anymore,” she told us. But when she brought this up with the doctor, she was told that she would have to take heavy medication for the rest of her life,” says Willy. “When we asked the nurses if they could review her dose, it was suddenly increased. There was absolutely no involvement.” However, the Healthcare Inspectorate considers involving the patient or family to be an important theme.

After Lieve’s death, Lut and Willy, founded Re-Member, a non-profit organization that wants to help families who are going through the same thing. The idea for Re-Member originated in their daughter’s head. She thought there should be an organization that gives people in psychiatry a voice. Her parents are now trying to make that happen. Willy and Lut sit around the table with everyone involved, listen to everyone’s concerns and fears and try to find solutions together with the family members. ‘Open-heart-circles’, they call it. A place where they can share their fears and doubts with their loved ones without being condemned.  A place where they are allowed to admit that they are thinking of suicide, without being locked up. For years they welcome all families in distress in their house and make them listen to each other’s fears and hopes, inviting all the persons involved to speak the language of connection and love. Undoubtedly, they save many lives. Sometimes suicidal thoughts win the battle. In those cases they help parents to foster warm non-condemning thoughts for themselves or for their deceased child.

All those years, they never asked a penny in reply.

Five years and almost 300 Open-heart-circles later, the organization can boast that it has found it’s way to a large number of families, giving a voice to kids and adolescents with existential doubts. Many educators, psychologists and even psychiatrists all over the country are now doing what Lut and Willy did: organizing Open-heart-circles. The Flemish government is supporting the circles in almost all provinces and paying for them. A research by the Belgian National Institute for Criminology NICC indicates that the circles are very helpful for at least 60% of the families involved. All of this is the merit of two people: Lut Wouters and Willy Vandamme.

I, Dimi Dumortier, having received the honour of a Giraffe Hero nomination myself in 2019, was trained by these two wonderful people to lead Open-Heart-Circles in that same year. I have led dozens of these circles since then, and can certify of their extraordinary human value. I believe that Lut and Willy truly deserve the title of Giraffe Heroes.

DD

16 June 2021