10 Things I Learned in a Mental Hospital
Want to know a secret? I’m not who you think I am, not entirely, but that’s okay. How about we be honest with each other today? I’ll be honest with you, and then you be honest with yourself. I’ll go first. Over the past year I have been in two different mental hospitals (or as my mother would prefer me to say, psychiatric hospitals) three different times. The two most recent times I was in the neuropsychiatric hospital at UCLA but I have also spent a little bit of time in Good Samaritan here in town. Each time it was for anxiety, depression, and psychotic symptoms. Now I would bet that your perception of me has already changed from what it was originally because of this stigma attached to what I just said.
Patrick W. Corrigan, a professor of Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, informs us that “Stereotypes” depict “people with mental illness as being dangerous, unpredictable, responsible for their illness, or generally incompetent” (citation)
There are many misconceptions people have about mental illness and mental hospitals. Today I am going to prove all those people wrong. I learned a lot on the psych unit and that is what I am here today to share with you.
The very first thing I learned was that it’s not like it is in the movies. Have any of you seen “A Beautiful Mind?” Well, about a month before I went into Good Sam my therapist had me watch that movie; I’m not really sure why. About half-way through the movie the main character, who is Schizophrenic, gets carted away to a mental hospital. Shortly after that I shut the movie off without finishing it. I didn’t like seeing him restrained and drugged. That is what I thought going inpatient was like. When I think of B Unit, the unit I was on in UCLA, it looks to me kind of like a college dorm floor. Up two of the halls are a bunch of rooms. Everything is centered around this big room that we call the Day Room where we spend all our free time. In it there are comfy chairs, a big table and chairs where we ate our meals, a tv we could watch movies on during visiting hours, and off to the side is the nurses station. There were no empty white bedrooms, no people muttering to themselves walking the hall, and definitely no straight jackets. We did have a Seclusion Room, located in the Day Room where if a kid got uncontrollable and became a danger to himself or others they would give him a PRN, (PRN means “As Needed” so when you asked for a PRN they would give you a medication, such as Thorazine, that just helps to calm you down) so they would give him a PRN and put him in there until he calmed down.
The second thing that I was happily surprised to learn is that you can have fun in inpatient and you can even make friends. The morning before I was first admitted I was talking to my Aunt and I said to her, “Well maybe I’ll make friends.” She replied back saying, “Okaaayyy, but is that really the type of people you want to make friends with?” What I don’t think she understood at the time was that “they” are people like me. They are people like me and they are people like you. The kids I met in UCLA weren’t crazy, or scary, or bad. Some of the sweetest, more caring people I have ever met, I met on Unit B. There were all different types of people there, an unlikely group out in the real world, but we all generally got along. Some of the kids I still talk to.
There was work involved on the unit, we were there to get better and we had to go to groups, and meetings, and see doctors, but we also had fun at the same time. We had access to a deck with tables and chairs, balls, and a ping pong table. Some of the groups we did were fun too like cooking group, Recreational Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and Art Room. I’d like to point out that while we made friends and could have fun in the hospital, being there was not fun. It isn’t a place to be glamorized and glorified. It’s a hospital. The kids there are there to get better.
Number three. Community. Community was a group and how we began our day. It goes a little like this. The staff running it picks someone to keep the journal and then we’d all go around and when it got to your turn you would have to set a goal for the day and a coping skill. While I was there one of my Communities might be “to communicate better to the staff when I need something, and for a coping skill I would color” Today it would look something like “do my best in all of the rounds I compete in, and a coping skill would be to shuffle cards.” Setting a goal like this is great for anyone to do.
Four. No, your mother’s not Bipolar…..unless she is. I don’t know? Here’s the point I’m trying to make. During my time in UCLA I saw people with many different disorders. I remember that one time I was there a discussion that came up was that we all hate it when someone uses disorders as adjectives. “Ugh, my mother is so Bipolar, “I got so depressed in class today.” “Haha, you’re so OCD” These words hold more weight than you think they do. You never know if when you use these words in the lunch room if someone at your table happens to be bipolar. You don’t know what others are dealing with.
Number five. Pain is universal. Almost everyone you know is dealing with something that you don’t know about. I would bet that some of you probably know at least one person who has been in a mental hospital. When I was in Good Sam here in Bakersfield, I was in an all-girls unit and from our group there were girls from a large variety of high schools. You normally can’t tell by looking at a person what is going on inside their head. Of the kids I met in my inpatient stays: the saddest girl tried the hardest to make everyone else happy. The boy who was on a court mandate was the gentlest person there. The girl with stitches holding her arm together could make anyone laugh. The girl who screamed at night could calm anyone down. I have found that in a lot of instances the gentlest, most caring people are the ones with problems haunting them that you couldn’t even imagine
Numbers six and seven kind of go together. What I learned was that someone always has it worse than you and that the pain doesn’t go away overnight. Good Sam was more of a psychiatric hold facility. I was the only person there who wasn’t on a hold for a suicide attempt. UCLA is a more long term care facility. Most people stay about 2 or 3 weeks. Some stay less, some stay more. Most people don’t leave completely better either. Actually, nobody leaves completely better. Something people need to remember for themselves and for those around them is that recovery is a process not perfection.
The 8th thing I learned was taught to me by D, my favorite staff, she taught me to be my own advocate. I was so used to other people saying what I needed that I wasn’t accustomed to doing that for myself. But when you’re living in a hospital there’s no one there to tell the staff or the doctors if you need something. You have to speak up for yourself. You have to fight for yourself.
Perhaps one of the best lessons I learned from my stay in UCLA was that people care. The last time I stayed there it was for about two weeks in December of 2014 and while there that time my favorite nurse was J. I knew J from when I had been admitted there a couple months earlier and when she saw me she was like, “Caitlin!” and I was like “J” and then we gave each other a hug. She hadn’t seen me in months yet she still remembered my face and name. When you stay in the “normal” hospital you have nurses but you don’t get to know them the same way you do your staff when you are in a psychiatric hospital. They are there most days, all day long with you. They know you. It wasn’t just the staff that cared. All of us kids there took care of one another. If someone needed something we did it. If someone need to talk we talked. If they needed us to just be there we were there. If they needed a hug they were out of luck because of body boundaries. We lived there, some of us for a while, so the staff and the other kids on the unit became our family.
The 10th and most important thing I learned and I hope you learned from this speech is that you can’t judge people because they are in a mental hospital. Mental hospitals get a bad reputation. People get stigmatized for being there but there doesn’t have to be that stigma. I see me and the kids I met in UCLA as smart and brave. We needed the help and we knew it. Mental hospitals are a good thing. I learned a lot there and I hope that you learned something too.