Doctors ‘drugged and electrocuted’ New Zealand lesbian for being gay

new zealand lesbian abuse in care ect electroshocked
Photo: Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry

A New Zealand woman has bravely opened up about her harrowing experiences of abuse while in the care of doctors.

Joan Bellingham (pictured) is among survivors sharing their stories with New Zealand’s ongoing Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry.


The royal commission is investigating abuses by healthcare officials in state and faith-based hospitals between 1950 and 1999.

In a filmed testimony, Bellingham said she went in and out of a hospital over the course of 12 years.

During that time she was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) over 200 times because she was a lesbian.

“I have been gay for as long as I can remember. I never thought of it as something I needed to hide away,” she said.

At age 18, Bellingham was bullied by peers while training as a nurse at Christchurch’s Burwood Hospital in 1970.

She said her head nurse also told her, “If you think you’re going to be a nurse, you’re wrong.”

As a result of being openly gay, Bellingham was targeted for abuse and fellow nurses falsely accused her of stealing drugs.

New Zealand lesbian nurse admitted to psychiatric ward and drugged

Things escalated when Joan Bellingham was told she was being admitted to a psychiatric ward to treat her “neurotic personality disorder”.

“I didn’t have my clothes with me or anything,” she said. “I had no choice in the matter.”

She remained a patient at the Princess Margaret Hospital for 12 years, in and out for weeks or months at a time.

During that time doctors gave her antipsychotic drugs with no explanation as to why, what they were, or any side effects.

She said according to medical notes, doctors sometimes gave her three times the normal dose.


“The worst part is that I never felt like I was given a genuine choice, or that the doctor was listening to me,” she said.

She said her parents were concerned, but didn’t question the doctors. “They were like gods,” she explained.

Bellingham was also forcibly given electroconvulsive therapy more that 200 times.

“There was no regular pattern. Sometimes it would happen twice a day,” she said.

“It felt like razor blades going through my body. I would vomit and cry and beg them not to do it again.

Sometimes the electricity so intense, she would go temporarily blind. She also believes the rods gave her Hepatitis C.

Horrific ‘treatment’ made New Zealand nurse feel like ‘a walking zombie’

Joan Bellingham said she was often asked questions about being a lesbian by doctors.

“[The doctor] would ask me questions like, ‘How many times a week do you have sex with your partner?’, and, ‘What is it like?’

“I would become very scared and not want to be left alone in a room with him.”

Bellingham said the “treatment” made her “hate herself” and she lost the will to live.

“I was like a walking zombie, I felt so humiliated. I felt like I had no reason to live,” she said.

Bellingham received $10,000 compensation in 1999 when she filed a claim over the ECT burns to her scalp. She also received $1,500 for her chronic headaches.

In 2012, the hospital apologized and paid her over $4,000 as a “wellness” payment and for legal fees. But Bellingham said the money doesn’t come close to covering her .

“I felt like I was battling uphill to get people to recognise me or believe what I was saying actually happened,” she said.

“The uncertainty with seeking redress was almost as bad as the abuse.

“My hope is that no one has to go through what I went through.”

If this has brought up issues for you, help is available from QLife on 1800 184 527 or online at, Lifeline on 13 11 14, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

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