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Psychiatric care aims to help young criminals

The new clinic in Basel has been founded to provide treatment for potentially menacing or seriously ill individuals Keystone

Switzerland’s first psychiatric unit for young criminal offenders has opened in Basel to treat serious cases from German-speaking parts of the country.

This content was published on November 8, 2011 - 08:55
Claudia Spahr in Basel, swissinfo.ch

Previously there wasn’t anywhere suitable for these delinquent youths, Peter Tischer, senior physician and head of the department, told swissinfo.ch.

“Prison is not the right place for them because it doesn’t provide the intensive psychiatric treatment they require. Giving medication is just one building block but what they really need is a concentration of specialists looking after them.”

Cooking together and catching up on education are building blocks within the new approach that the psychiatric ward is taking.

Tischer travelled to Germany last year to visit the four most famous psychiatric hospitals for young offenders. His aim was to see what problems the hospitals faced and then put together a concept for the clinic in Basel.

As a department of the University Psychiatric Clinic of Basel it has been launched with six patients but has space and facilities for 12.

So far only there are only males in the ward – one reason being that statistically more men than women commit crimes – but the aim is to include females as well. It caters for offenders aged 14 years upwards and patients can stay until they are 21.

Group therapy

It is a labour intensive therapy. The supervision includes social workers and carers as well as medical and psychiatric specialists.

A completely new team of around 22 full and part-time employees has been put together to make the system work. They help patients with everyday duties and talk to them about their personal problems.

The youths are motivated to get up together and spend an hour a day outdoors in the clinic’s specially-built high security area. They are also encouraged to be considerate and help each other with simple everyday chores like setting the table.

Psychotherapy, occupational therapy and movement therapy are all included in the treatment programme. Emphasis is also placed on healing family bonds and group therapy. This is very effective, according to Tischer, because at this age it is particularly important what peers think of you.

Two teachers are responsible for filling in any educational gaps the youths may have. Apart from main subjects like German and maths, patients will explore job options for possible integration into society.

The young offenders also do projects, talk about their origins and cook meals together. These are all exercises aimed at strengthening identity.

Illness and crime

Identity is still being formed during adolescence which is why this is a sensitive time for youths with psychiatric problems. Delusional and schizophrenic youths in particular struggle with identity issues so putting them together with similarly troubled adults could further aggravate their problems.

The European Court of Human Rights even stipulates that young criminals should not be incarcerated with adults because of any potential negative influence.

Many mental illnesses such as schizophrenia have a hereditary element and it often takes a few impulses or a certain level of stress to activate the condition. Delusional and schizophrenic behaviour can lead to crime in critical cases.

The new clinic in Basel has been founded to provide treatment for potentially menacing or seriously ill individuals.

“It’s not about getting together the worst criminals from around Switzerland. It’s about the seriousness of the illness and treating these cases,” says Tischer.

“Up until now nothing’s gone wrong,” says Tischer half-jokingly. “Of course some of the youngsters do look around and check out potential escape routes.”

Apart from remembering to lock the doors at all times the new team at the clinic have the challenge of dealing with different illnesses. As a pioneering project there is no doubt that all eyes will be on them.

Psychiatric clinics

Psychiatric clinics were born out of a socio-political mindset at the end of the 19th century.

The idea was that mentally ill individuals be treated by specialists in pleasant surroundings. Hence many of Switzerland’s university clinics today are housed in and around old villas with landscaped gardens and tree-lined parkways.

Basel’s University Psychiatric Clinic is 125 years old. It began as the Irrenanstalt Friedmatt (Friedmatt mental institution) in 1886.

In 2009 the youth forensic clinic was opened to treat young out-patients. On November 1, 2011 the in-patient clinic was founded.

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