Guest Post: What It's Like to Be in a Mental Hospital

6:00:00 PM

I debated for a long time about whether I should touch on this topic. However, due to recent events in my life, I thought it would be thought-provoking to cover my time spent in the behavioral unit in a hospital.

I apologize in advance. The title is click-bait, but here in Minnesota it’s called a behavioral unit and not an insane asylum or a looney bin or the nuthouse.

I won’t talk about why I was hospitalized twice – just fell on hard time I guess – but I’d like to dispel some of the myths surrounding mental wards. I’ve never seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but I’ve been asked repeatedly if I have. As a kid, I was a huge fan of Batman: The Animated Series where the bad guys were locked up in Arkham Asylum, which was always portrayed as a dangerous place, but don’t worry folks, I wasn’t sent to a place for the criminally insane. I didn’t even see anyone who looked like The Joker.

Unfortunately, behavioral units vary from hospital to hospital. And I don’t mean tiny variations, but HUGE differences. Some places have substandard conditions while others feel like the as comfortable as home. A home you can never leave unless a doctor signs off on you like they do at a normal hospital.

DISCLAIMER:  Everyone’s stay at a hospital is different, and as I mentioned before, facilities vary.  What may be helpful to one person may be detrimental to someone else.

I stayed in two different hospitals but both were under the same branch. The rooms reminded me so much of my college dorm rooms from the white concrete walls to the single twin beds. 

I even had a roommate, but at times I would go through two or three because they kept checking out of the ward. If you admit yourself voluntarily, you’re allowed to leave at any time. However, if you’re committed by someone other than yourself, you can’t leave until the court deems otherwise. One of those times, I was under a 72-hour hold after a suicide attempt.

Each hospital had its own common room with a television, books, board games, and other materials like coloring books. What we could watch on television was different at each ward. During my first stay, the psychiatric assistant questioned us watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because it may be a trigger. 

A trigger is anything that may start an episode – a loss in the control of emotions, but this varies per person – in another patient. Some patients are triggered by violence or traumatic scenes in movies or other entertainment. But during my second stay, we were allowed to watch whatever we liked, and would watch movies between therapy groups or after dinner.

Group therapy sessions were carried out multiple times throughout the day, and even though no one was forcing us to go, it looked better to the doctors if you attended. I was still extremely upset the first day I was in the hospital (both times) and I found talking about my problems in group healing. If being in a hospital isn’t enough, I felt like I was going crazy and that I should be like everyone else. I found out in those groups that I was normal. I had reasons to be upset, but the answer to those problems wasn’t to end my life, but to keep on living it. 

The groups challenged us to view ourselves critically. How do I see myself? Why do I feel that way? I consider myself to be an introspective person, but sometimes I can’t see past my limited knowledge. Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes and ears to point out that nothing is wrong with me and I just need to see things from another prospective. I need to find a way to discover my own peace.

Other forms of therapy involved creating things and yes, sometimes that involved painting. The idea is to promote mindfulness – the idea and act of being present in the moment and worrying only about the here and now. My panic and bipolar disorders cause my mind to race and worry about every single disjointed thought that I have. It’s chaotic and disorienting.

I struggle back and forth between loving the hospital and hating it. I hated it because it took me away from my normal life and there was little contact with the outside world. I did get to talk to my parents a few times a day and my husband came every night for an hour to visit, but I wasn’t in my element. I didn’t have the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted.

At the same time, the hospital was what I needed. Something happened to me that forced me to react in such a way that I was a harm to myself. I felt relieved because I had no responsibilities. No bills. No dishes. No work. My only responsibility was to get better and focus on me.

I’m thankful to live in a place where there’s a decent mental health system, but it’s not perfect. When my primary physician and therapist recommended me to a psychiatrist, I was told I would be able to see someone in six months.

Six more months of not knowing what was wrong with me or how we could treat it.

Then, I found a doctor that could see me in three months, but I was able to see him a lot sooner because another patient cancelled their appointment. I was lucky, but if I ever have an issue and need to see the doctor soon, I have to wait another three months for an appointment or visit the emergency room.

I’m somewhat anxious of the emergency room. If I say the wrong thing, I feel like I could be committed to the hospital again and never be allowed to leave.

But, this is why it’s so important for me to take care of myself and attend every therapy appointment, take every medication I have as prescribed, and utilize all of my loved ones as a part of my support system.

Mental wards and behavioral units are not evil places. I may have to go back in the future, but in the meantime I will do what I can to educate others about mental illness and find ways that I can make a difference in regards to medical care.

If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or thoughts of suicide, you are not alone. There are others like you and it’s ok to ask for help. Someone near you may be feeling the same way and looking to connect with another person like them. 

Don’t be afraid to see a doctor or tell a family member, or look for a support group through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA).

And if all else fails, just make it through each day one moment at a time, one day at a time.

Author Bio:

Amber Cotton is patent paralegal by day and a writer and blogger by night. Toward the end of 2015, she was diagnosed with bipolar type II and panic disorders. Her blog, Cotton's Corner, features tips on writing, her chronicles of writing her first novel, and advocating for awareness of mental illness. When not writing or working, she is spending time with her family and spoiling her cats.

Check out her blog and all her social media listed below.

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