Photograph of Bethany with attorney Kristine Sullivan

Disability Rights NC attorney Kristine Sullivan first met Bethany Smith at Cherry Hospital. As a member of our Investigations and Monitoring Unit, Kristine visits hospitals and other facilities that treat people with disabilities. She looks for signs of abuse and neglect and advocates for appropriate remedies when patients’ rights have been violated.

Bethany was at Cherry Hospital undergoing treatment for behaviors related to childhood trauma. She struggled with self-injury and an eating disorder. She had been admitted to mental health facilities several times during her adolescence and was now at Cherry for what would be a two-year stay.

Kristine educated Bethany about her rights. So, when Bethany was restrained improperly at a different hospital, she knew to call Kristine. Federal law prohibits the use of restraint on patients in psychiatric hospitals unless their behavior puts themselves or others in danger. When Bethany told Kristine about the incident, Disability Rights NC launched an investigation.

Disability Rights NC submitted a complaint to the Division of Health Service Regulation, which found deficits in the hospital’s training and procedures, particularly around the use of restraints. The agency determined that excessive force had been used in the incident involving Bethany. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services notified the hospital that it must improve its policies and procedures to continue receiving federal funding.

When Bethany visited the hospital again for a medical condition, she was pleased to see improvements. She did not see anyone restrained while she was there, and there was a big poster about patient rights on the wall near where the improper restraint had happened. “It was taller than me,” she laughed.

Bethany is now a student at Pitt Community College. She shares an apartment with two young women, hits the books, catches her favorite shows, and dyes her hair interesting colors. She looks forward to getting a post-secondary degree and beginning a career as a patient advocate. She is driven to educate others about the experience of being institutionalized, and is writing a book. “I’m not going to be able to get rid of all the ignorance, but one of my goals is to raise awareness and get rid of stigma,” Bethany said.

In 2016, Disability Rights NC awarded Bethany the Champion of Equality and Justice Award for being an advocate determined to use her experience to educate and end the stigma of living with a mental illness.