What It’s Really Like To Be A Patient In A Mental Health Unit

mental

I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve been a patient in a psychiatric ward of a clinic/hospital.

That got your attention, didn’t it.

You have probably sat next to me on the train, smiled at me as I stood behind you in the line for your morning coffee. You may even have worked out next to me at the gym. I walk among you as do others but far too many are afraid to admit it. Why? Various reasons. Fear of rejection, not being understood, the numerous labels that come with it or maybe being seen as a pariah.

While I can’t speak for them, this is my truth, which I hope will help encourage, enable and even empower others to be more open and honest when tackling the subject.

You don’t have to be alone, because you’re not.

Getting admitted

‘You’re going to do it again’ the doctor said, closing his file. ‘I’m going to have you admitted’.

‘What?’

I’d written the word ‘hello’ in joined-up writing when he asked to write the first thing that came to my mind, so how did he come to that conclusion?

At the time, he was probably right, to be fair.

I’d just spent a week in hospital recovering from yet another an attempted suicide bid, and while not my first, it had been the most serious. I had spent four days in ICU and two in High Dependency.

A series of events had triggered it, including repeated flashbacks of past abuse, the recent death of my mother who was the organiser of the paedohile ring of which I was a victim all within close proximity of each other. I was 54-years-old, yet already feeling like my life was over it felt like.

My options were to either go voluntarily to a mental health wing at a local Public Hospital or be sectioned. I chose to go voluntarily but some choice.

Prior to that, I had spent a week on a regular ward recovering after causing so much damage to my liver that I almost needed an organ transplant.

Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. But I remember the other patients there not being very nice and telling me I had ‘brought it on myself’.

What I needed was empathy.

It was dark and raining heavily when they took me to the unit. Here I was again. What on earth was I doing there?

My husband was always allowed to stay with me as I was shown around.

The ward its self-looked more like a hotel than a hospital, which we could walk around freely, but the main doors were locked. An inventory was taken of my personal belongings; my phone charger, computer and the belt of my dressing gown were confiscated, however, so I couldn’t use them to hurt myself.

The stereotypes have got it wrong

I was not in a padded cell or a straitjacket – nor did I see either. The same goes for electric shock therapy, though someone I shared a room with told me they had undergone it at another facility.

Rather uniquely, I wasn’t on any form of medication, so I was fully lucid at all times. And aside from missing my family, who visited most days, I never once felt scared.

A massive stereotype about mental health is that you are ‘locked away’ because you pose a threat to other people. On the contrary, the majority risk endangering themselves.

There were all kinds of people in that hospital, ranging from alcoholics to the emotionally unstable. I came to believe that we had all ended up together because they simply didn’t know what else to do with us.

I did make friends there. I felt integrating was important, especially when thrown into an unfamiliar environment like that.

We’d chat, play ping pong and, on one occasion, did art therapy. It was a bit like being in the Big Brother house.

I didn’t stay in touch with anyone after I left, though  except one woman I text now and then. I mean all I have in common with them in Mental Health. It’s a Clinic of revolving doors. Each time I go I seem to see the same faces in for the same reasons and we have the same conversations. Oh how I hate it.

Sometimes the staff are mean In my experience, it was not the other patients that you had to watch out for, but the staff.

‘What’s wrong, are you in pain?’ One nurse asked. ‘That’s why we don’t try to kill ourselves,’ she spat. I complained to a doctor and was called a liar. I was asked by another nurse how I found my doctor. When I joked that he was good looking, rather than take it in a lighthearted manner that it had been intended, they responded: ‘You know nothing will ever happen between the two of you, don’t you? Er, duh!

The real wake-up call was probably when one of my friends came to visit – and when I say one, literally only one came since I had alienated most of the others through my depression and PTSD.

‘I never want to see you in a place like this again,’ he said. And he hasn’t: nine years on, I’m one of the ‘lucky ones’.

Getting out

I have no idea how long I was admitted for as time seemed to stand still. It didn’t feel like long though, perhaps a couple of months.

I don’t believe being in the hospital aided my recovery in any way.

All it did was give me a ‘time out’ from the real world and allowed my body the chance to physically heal. I received no actual treatment, other than occasional contact with a doctor, while I was there, in limbo.

When I was discharged, it was coming up to Christmas time and I remember going shopping for presents and feeling really vulnerable, especially in big crowds of people. Almost childlike.

For a long time after, I felt embarrassed and like I had to hide the experience of being in the unit. You would think that I had served time in prison for murdering someone or something. Now it feels less taboo.

The stigma of mental health

Although I am writing a memoir and write a blog daily, putting pen to paper for this article was not easy. Due to the stigma surrounding mental health, it is not a patch I wear with pride and there’s a guilt that maybe I should. The truth is though that words like ‘crazy’, ‘psycho’ and ‘mad’ make me flinch.I have a friend who always insists on introducing me to people as ‘Crazy Erin’. They are lovely and I know they don’t mean any offence by it – they don’t know about my experience and the nickname is meant with affection, but I cringe on hearing it.

A number of high-profile people, like Prince Harry, openly speaking about their struggles has helped move the conversation forward, but I feel it still has some way to go. What I can tell you is that there’s hope.

To date, I have only ever spoken about any of this once, in a personal blog post. The response was overwhelmingly positive but I was struck by the number of people who said: ‘I never knew that about you,’ or ‘but you always seem so happy!’ Sometimes the biggest battles are the ones that you can’t see.

Moving forward

They say ‘laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone,’ and that’s a pretty good surmising of depression. It can happen to anyone regardless of age, background or ethnicity.

According to mentalhealth.org.uk, ‘It’s estimated that around 1million people will die by suicide worldwide each year.’

Real life is stranger than fiction, hey.

What it’s really like to be a patient in a mental health unit

While I do still struggle with anxiety and Complex PTSD, I am learning to deal with it using Psychotherapy and EMDR along with the support of an amazing family. I also embrace dressing in bright colours and I’m a firm believer in the laws of attraction.

Play the victim and you’ll always be one. Envision yourself the victor and that’s half the battle won.

5 comments

  1. Many years ago I saw a movie starring Natalie Wood called “The Cracker Factory” and I have coined that term when I speak of my Many hospitalizations~ it eases a bit of the “taboo” reactions and keeps it a bit “LIGHTer”. It is something I have never hidden,( my first time was in 1975 I believe) attitudes and fears of others be damned!!
    Some were Mental Health Units ( many of which are now called Behavioral Health Units), one was called a Life Stress Unit, once a State facility (Shew THAT one showed me I was in Far better shape than I believed) Most times I was in voluntarily but a couple I was not. Sadly many of these places simply offer chemical “restraints” and little else in the way of actual Help. Because of my seizure disorder ( from countless head injuries as a child) I was not a candidate for electroshock therapy. And seeing the drooling and complete disorientation ( some for Days after) of the patients who did get that I was relieved it was not for me. One private hospital however actually had useful and informative groups that were diagnostically specific ( The one group I Learned SO much from was the Trauma group~ specifically for PTSD. The woman who ran it would begin by saying if you have never been through a trauma you do not belong here.)
    Mostly they are simply described as a a place to BE “safe”. I too have have some horrendous treatment from staff and even Doctors.I was even punished for several days in a room with nothing but a mattress on the floor, No shower or change of clothes for days and not allowed to speak to anyone unless they entered my room. All because I had somehow angered a nurse. And who would believe me, a “mental patient”?!! That time, once I was allowed out to make a phone call out at the nurses desk, I faked a call to my lawyer and explained what was happening. In less than 24 hours I was put back into an actual room with a bed and the next morning released. Huh…. that was a real help for me…NOT.
    It has been one heck of a Journey BUT I AM Healing and feeling more like ME and less like a damaged, irreparable Soul.
    Brightest Blessings and Thanks for sharing!!
    Namaste

  2. I have been hospitalised too many times. It never gets any easier. But its not all bad. And sometimes its needed for recovery, I wish people wouldnt be so stigmatising about it. xoxo

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It gives a unique perspective to readers, but I know how difficult it must have been to share something so personal. One of my nursing clinicals was on a Behavioral Health Unit, and my experience there made me want to be a mental health advocate. Thank you.

    • Thank you for taking the trouble to comment. I really appreciate it. It is difficult to share but it also helps a lot and seems to be helping others. It is fantastic that you do the work you do as without people like you none of us would get better. All the best Erin

  4. I think in many cases comes from people not understanding, so it’s important that we speak up and share our experiences. Like you, I found that the other patients weren’t a problem, but in far too many cases the staff were.

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin