The first morning I awoke in the psychiatric hospital was surreal. That corner room on the thirteenth floor was the absolute last place I wanted to be. My plans to kill myself had been thwarted by a smart therapist who had forced me into inpatient treatment. I didn’t want to be there, so I assumed it would be like jail.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from the psych ward. Perhaps padded rooms? Perhaps straight jackets? I think I knew better than that, but I certainly did believe I would have very little freedom in my day, that there would be people routinely screaming or constantly crying, to have medication forced upon me, and to not be allowed any opportunity to try to kill myself. It turned out that only the very last of those expectations was true.
In truth my expectations of the “loony bin” were not only entirely false, but in most cases completely backwards. Stereotypes persist of psychiatric asylums being terrifying, particularly in this season leading toward Halloween. These stereotypes largely began based on stories of psychiatric treatment from 100 years ago and persist because no one wants to discuss their own modern experiences since being in the psychiatric hospital is still considered shameful. However, I am going to break the silence and the stereotypes but sharing with you my experiences of being in the mental hospital because I believe using asylums in scary stories and Halloween theming is not acceptable.
If the psych hospital wasn’t a Halloween horror house, then what was it? I often compare my experience to a combination or summer camp and kindergarten. Even in the unit largely comprised of suicidal people with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, I didn’t find the stereotype of an asylum, instead I found laughter, community, honesty, and safety.
Each morning began with a nurse checking our vitals followed by a group meeting to check in on our mood and set personal goals for the day. Throughout the morning we were offered a variety of group therapies and classes to participate in. Some were more traditional, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy but other groups included movement and yoga therapy, art therapy, music therapy, and, on one very special day of the week, pet therapy.
The afternoons included another class or two of therapy and free time to create art, nap, journal, paint nails, play games, or use the exercise bike. At some point throughout the day, each of us met individually with our psychiatrist and social worker team to discuss an individual treatment plan and medications. Additionally, another member of staff also had a one-on-one with us, which varied in intensity from a brief mood check-in to a mini therapy session. The staff also took note of what we were doing every 15 minutes in order to ensure we were staying safe.
After dinner, we had group fun activities, which ranged from movie or game night to (if we were lucky) asking a member of staff to get out the Wii. The night ended with a thoughtful meditation and another mood check-in, after which the lights were dimmed and people were encouraged to slow down and prepare for bed.
Now that type of day might actually sound sort of enjoyable, but let me assure you, I was so depressed as to be completely miserable. The truth is that a lot of the time a huge part of my therapy was just forcing myself to go to the classes and participate when all I wanted to do was sleep. When I first arrived I couldn’t even sit through a full group therapy session before being unable to concentrate and needing a nap. I spent the first two days in my room, simply sleeping and trying to find the courage to live. With time and as I felt better I began to have more energy to participate in more activities. It crossed my mind more than once while I was there that I wasn’t fully taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the programming, but by the time I felt up for doing so I was ready to go home and attempt to get well in an outpatient setting.
I was strongly encouraged to not isolate in my room and instead engage with the therapies and other patients. However, at no point was I required to do anything I didn’t want to do. There were no straight jackets or tortuous screaming. No one forced me to take medication. I was not locked in a room by myself or strapped down. Electro-shock therapy was completely humane since patients were given anesthesia beforehand. The vast majority of the time I even wore my own clothes (following a dress code due to safety).
The mental hospital wasn’t fun, but it also wasn’t terrifying or a nightmare. I certainly hope to never go back, but if I need to I will. It took two experiences in the hospital for me to develop this attitude and fortunately it wasn’t too late for me, like it is for the 121 people who take their own lives every day (on average). I wish those people knew that the rumors and stigmas around psychiatric care aren’t true. I wish they knew they didn’t have to be afraid to seek help, even inpatient care.
Mental illnesses and psychiatric hospitals aren’t something to consider funny or scary. They’re not a trope to add to the next story plot or Halloween exhibit. It is long past time to change our society’s narrative and instead start telling stories of the psych ward that are closer to the truth. It’s time to say loudly and clearly to the world that the psych ward is a place of structure and safety, where there is more laughter than tears, and where people can take the first steps toward recovery. Each of us can be part of that change this Halloween season (and every day) by not participating in asylum scare houses and refusing to engage in conversations about “crazy people”. Most importantly, we can be a part of the change by telling our loved ones who are sick with mental illness that they’re not crazy and there is nothing to fear from inpatient treatment.
This Halloween, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)