“Somebody kill me!” “Make the voices stop!” “Suck it up and stop feeling sorry for yourself!”
These are all phrases I have heard echoing through the hallways of behavioral health units, aka psychiatric wards, mental hospitals, looney bins. They provoke fear, hopelessness, anger and tremendous pain even just thinking about them. Several times I have had to admit myself to a hospital when I feared I was no longer safe from myself or was experiencing dangerous effects from medication. I have gone with the intention of undertaking intensive medication changes, therapy and round the clock care. I have been lucky to have had fairly adequate stays at one particular hospital, however, I have also been the main character in an unbelievable nightmare at others. My intent here is to share some of my experiences in the hopes people will begin to understand just how inadequate mental health care is, especially for crisis situations.
When a person is admitted to a psych unit, there is no separation or specialization according to type or severity of illness. I was admitted due to depression, yet I’d receive basically the same care – or lack of – as a severely psychotic patient. I’ve been treated as worthless and looked down upon by staff simply by being there. Before I’d even speak to anyone, judgement had already been made. Upon admittance I’ve had to undergo searches, remove all strings from my clothing along with my shoelaces then had my shoes duct taped to my feet. I was escorted by security to the “unit” which was located in the basement of the building and taken to my room that was dimly lit and furnished with two beds, two drawers and a tiny window. My roommate did not know her own name or have a grasp on reality. She would steal food and hide it under her bed and when she would get caught she would be screamed at and humiliated. I would try to talk to her but she’d simply smile and continue on in her own world while I sat there with my heart breaking for her and the way she was being treated.
Several times a day the unit would be on “Code Red” when all of us would be rushed to the common room while several orderlies would come running to take down any given patient who posed a threat. Otherwise I was basically left on my own for the first day or so until I could prove that I could be trusted and my status would be upgraded…In other words, until I was not a threat. Never once did I ever display aggressive behavior and that was even in my records, but nonetheless, I had to convince them I was reasonable. To me that was humiliating. Once I had proved myself I was allowed to participate in some activities for patients with a grasp on reality, some of whom were depressed as well. We’d discuss amongst ourselves how scary the place was and how we lacked proper care and were shocked by the environment. When I was first admitted it took almost 15 hours for me to actually see a doctor, so initially I was denied the medication that I was already on, which at the time was a heavy duty cocktail, therefore missing a dose was dangerous. My pleas were ignored and ultimately I felt like an addict begging for my drugs even though I was very well educated about my illness and the medicine I was on, yet I was treated as though I was stupid. Ultimately no one would listen to me and I dealt with the repercussions on my own. When I finally met with a psychiatrist, he hardly spoke any English so I could not understand most of what he said and when I’d ask for clarification it was clear that I was annoying him. It was so frustrating I eventually just stopped talking and took whatever he prescribed, no longer caring if it killed me.
Nurses and mental health workers were supposed to make rounds every 15 minutes to ensure everyone’s safety, yet at night when I lay in bed scared out of my mind the only person walking the halls was a patient pacing back and forth outside my room while yelling and laughing at the voices in his head, insisting that he was friends with Hitler who’d be coming for us all. We were allowed to use one of three phones in the common area but there was no privacy whatsoever. Each phone was separated by ¾ of a wall. I’ll never forget as long as I live one particular time when I was using the phone. The man next to me, who had been hospitalized against his will and was also facing drug charges, starting arguing with someone, began dropping F-bombs and without warning threw a stool, smashing it into the wall just above my head. I was stuck in the corner waiting for another projectile to come at me but to my relief he was taken down, cuffed and taken to a “private” room. I kept wondering why I was trapped in the same place as this man when our illnesses and behaviors were so radically different.
By my third day I had yet to talk to a counselor and my cocktail of meds had increased to 5 different prescriptions. Soon another was added whose purpose was to counteract the side effects I was experiencing from of all the others. At night I was also given something to help me sleep which would knock me unconscious for 10-12 hour stretches. The first time I was given that particular med I questioned the reason for it and expressed concern about adding it to my already potent cocktail, but I was told if I didn’t take it then I was essentially arguing with doctor’s orders and it would be noted that I was uncooperative. Dumbfounded and defeated I felt myself falling asleep as I walked away and only by holding onto the walls did I make it to my room where I literally passed out on the bed. A few hours later I was woken up suddenly by a body slamming down on top of me. It was dark and I was confused but my instincts kicked into high gear. I yelled and managed to push the person off me. He tried to come at me again but I managed to get past him and ran to the nurses’ station, insisting that someone had come into my room and jumped on me. They actually rolled their eyes and reluctantly followed me. The man who had several minutes earlier been released from solitary lockdown for trying to hit a mental health worker had somehow made it into my room without anyone noticing. He was dragged out and I was told I could go back to bed even though I insisted I wanted to stay out of my room, but I was not allowed. I sat up in bed praying I’d stay awake but my body couldn’t fight the meds that saturated my system. I awoke 8 hours later thanking God that He had been watching over me protecting me from harm. There’s no other way I would have woken up given the amount of medication in my system.
The common area where we were allowed to watch tv was decorated with holes in the gray walls, stains from God only knows what on the floor and ceiling, and old, ripped up furniture. The environment was downright dark and depressing. I obsessively wondered if this was going to be the place where I died. Did I really deserve to be in a place like this being treated like less than a human being? All I had wanted was to get treatment for an illness I didn’t ask for and couldn’t control, but I ended up feeling more hopeless than ever. A person suffering from depression is radically different from someone experiencing psychosis. Proper treatment is completely different yet that is not taken into consideration. I am not claiming all hospitals or staff are guilty, however too many are and that’s simply unacceptable. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has envisioned a so called “mental hospital” or “psych ward” as a scene taken straight out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but that’s what kept coming to my mind while wasting away in that hospital.
Being admitted to a hospital should not equate with being “crazy” or cause shock or judgment. I should not feel embarrassed or worried about telling people about being there. One should not be made to feel like a prisoner or ridiculed or not taken seriously when they are sick. People who suffer life threatening illnesses that originate in the brain, but just so happen to manifest in mood or behavior, should be treated with respect, compassion and receive quality health care; even patients who claim to be best friends with Hitler. I left that hospital angry and humiliated. Fortunately I was educated about my illness and medication and had a strong support system that ultimately helped me to survive. When a person is mentally ill and in a life threatening situation most people don’t know where to turn. When hospitals are not equipped to handle different illnesses and provide appropriate treatment carried out by caring staff, how will we ever make progress? I pray I never need the services of a hospital again, but there are no guarantees. Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness that can show up whenever it feels like it and is often life threatening. It angers me and scares me that if I needed a hospital something like this may be my only option. I would need to be tranquilized, tied up and dragged there against my will in order for me to ever accept being treated in a such a setting again. Behavioral health units are not plentiful and quality care is difficult to find. I truly hope society becomes more aware of this disgrace and therefore willing to help those who suffer from illnesses such as mine. Mental illness is real. It’s scary. But it’s treatable. However, we have to be willing to invest in it and make it a priority. These illnesses should not be written off. Those suffering should not be shrugged off as crazy and left to fend for themselves. Maybe I was stuck in that hospital for a reason. Maybe God allowed me to be there while protecting me so I could write about my experience and bring about awareness. If so then I will embrace that and vow to never let my nightmare go to waste.