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Psychiatric Hospitalization: What I Wish I’d Known

Before My First Inpatient Admission

For some reason, memories of my first psychiatric hospitalization have been on my mind lately. Back then, I knew nothing about going to a psychiatric hospital other than what I heard from my friends at a Christian high school: that during the first 24 hours you were bound to a chair and forced to stare at a blank wall, that psychiatrists listened to your parents and wrote the diagnosis in advance before they ever talked to you, that they would use force and strip-search you, that they would force you to take medication. Christian kids with “problems” were sent to strict boarding schools in the middle of nowhere to be “fixed”.

None of this was entirely true. That’s one of many things I wish I’d known before my first psychiatric hospitalization. So in honor of those thoughts, here’s what I wish I’d known about hospitalization before my first inpatient admission.

Psychiatric hospitalization is not a punishment

My first hospitalization happened when I was in college. I will never forget going to my therapist’s office with a concealed bottle of sleeping pills. My plan was to overdose on those pills if I were going to be hospitalized–talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. I was afraid to go to the hospital because I saw it as a punishment for having a psychiatric disorder, and I was in denial that it could help.

I hate to use the analogy of a broken leg, but it’s an apt one. When we go to the hospital with a broken leg, it is a legitimate medical problem. The setting and cast, although unpleasant, are not a punishment for having a broken leg. They are medical procedures designed to prevent the injury from getting worse and to help promote healing. Treatment for a broken mind is the same way. Yes, the hospital is not fun, but it is a legitimate medical treatment for a real physical injury.

You are a member of the treatment team

I’m aware this is not the case at every hospital, but you are the most important member of the treatment team. Only you know how you feel. Therefore, while your psychiatrist may talk to other people (usually if you’re a minor), you are the one with the most vital information. You know your sickness, and you know how the prescribed medication is affecting you. You are the most important member of the treatment team.

It is so vital that you be a member of the treatment team that I recommend seeking treatment elsewhere if you’re not listened to and heard and believed. I did this myself; actually crossing county lines to get to a treatment center that gave me a voice in my own recovery. While this may not always be feasible, fight to be heard. You are the expert at living your own life.

The staff will not hurt you

I’ve never been tied to a chair and forced to stare at a blank wall; restraints are tightly regulated by law. First staff will try to talk to you, then they will offer medication, then if all else fails and you’re in imminent danger, they’ll restrain you until you calm down and can be evaluated, usually within an hour. Under the law, they have to use the least restrictive means to protect you.

I’ve never been forcibly strip-searched. I’ve been asked to shake my bra and underwear to prove there was nothing harmful in them, but never beyond that. When I turned hostile during one admission, staff remained calm, explained what they were doing, offered me medication and things went smoothly from there. I was always treated with respect, and many times the staff member searching me explained why the search was necessary.

Staff are not there to hurt you and, in fact, are legally and professionally liable if they do. I remember one case in which a nurse was fired for telling a person with borderline personality disorder (BPD) “Why don’t you [expletive] do it?” when the patient said she was having thoughts of self-harm. When I was improperly restrained during one hospital stay, the hospital was cited for multiple violations of state law. You have rights and those rights are taken seriously.

So that’s what I wish I’d known and would say to anyone facing their first stay in a psychiatric hospital. The hospital is not a punishment. You are a member of the treatment team. Staff will not hurt you. Remember these three things to make your stay easier.

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15 Responses to Psychiatric Hospitalization: What I Wish I’d Known

  1. SandyB says:

    I just endured my first stay in a psychiatric hospital about three weeks ago. I wish I had seen this article before then, but of course, hindsight is 20/20. My experience was nowhere near as respectful. I have asked around about other hospitals and have talked with my psychiatrist about the prospect of a next time. Glad to hear that my experience was not the norm.

  2. I have been hospitalized several times. The first time after cutting myself. During those times there were trained medical personnel who were less than professional. During my first hospitalization the resident on duty was actually angry that I was not “cooperating” with her. I could tell that I was “distasteful” to her. The man who escorted me up the the unit was to have explained to me what was going to happen – he never did. When I was asked what he did I explained “nothing” he just pushed my wheelchair. Most of the personnel were kind and thoughtful on the unit. Everything was new to me. I asked them to please explain what was going to happen and they did.

    I went through the unit in 6 days. Overall, I’d have to say it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

    I also went to a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut (I’m from Pennsylvania)
    for 3 weeks. I was strip searched the first week because I had cut myself and they were afraid. I didn’t mind it at all – they were only doing their job to keep me safe. Once I was “certified” not a risk, they stopped and I went to the River House where things were a bit more normal.

    Psychiatric Hospitals are a necessary evil for those of us who have a mental illness. Hopefully, I won’t ever have to traverse those hallways again. With the proper meds and talk therapy I feel like I’m in remission.

  3. Becky Oberg says:

    I’m sorry your experience was rough. It does seem to depend on the hospital sometimes.

  4. Becky Oberg says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I too have been hospitalized several times, usually for suicidal or self-harm ideation. I’m sorry you had some bad experiences, but glad it did help. You’re right about psychiatric hospitals being a necessary evil. Good luck in your recovery.

  5. Dr Musli Ferati says:

    Psychiatric hospitalization for many reasons exhibits an unpleasant and fearful psycho-social event for psychiatric patient. Furthermore if it is first one. But the hospitalization is necessary when the course of mental disorder get an undesirable direction.Generally, inpatient treatment enabled the psychiatric staff the overcome the consequences of destructive behave of any psychiatric patient that are imprudent and unpredictable as well. Beside this emergent indication, the hospital treatment develops and improves the life skills of psychiatric patient that have a great impact in the successful management of respective mental disorder from patient and their close relatives. In a word, hospitalization has got therapeutic and psycho-education properties. By this type of treatment patient becomes more conscience on mental illness from which render ill. This matter, on the one hand indicates the most preferable condition to recover from mental disorder.

  6. Jackie says:

    I am glad that others have had more positive experiences but reading this article brought up some long-standing rage over my hospitalization years ago. I was admitted as a teen. As soon as they took me in and my parents left, I was ushered into a medical room told I had to undress for a full exam. I refused. 3 staff members forced me onto the exam table and held me down while they undressed me and did the exam, including pelvic. As an child sexual abuse survivor, I was traumatized by this. I was then thrown into a padded room for several hours because I was upset. During a several week stay, I was never allowed to have a voice about anything. It was their way or else. That was many years ago now but it still enrages me. More recently a family member was admitted to a different hospital in a different town than where I had been. They performed a strip and cavity search. How can anyone see this as anything less than humiliating, abusive, and punishing? I am glad there are hospitals out there that do respect the people they treat but the ones that don’t still exist. If you have concerns about those in your area, you might ask your therapist to find out and share with you exactly what you could expect if you were to go to that facility. It has helped me make decisions when I’m well about care if I become unwell.

  7. Becky Oberg says:

    Thank you for sharing what must have been difficult. I spent four months in a state hospital that didn’t respect me, so I can understand your rage. I’ve never been forced to submit to a pelvic exam or cavity search and am grateful, but I’m shocked but not surprised that hospitals exist that still do that. As you said, talking to your therapist is a useful option–because I know what to expect when I go to the hospital, it’s easier for me to make the decision to go if I have to.

    I’m sorry you were traumatized by your admission and stay.

  8. Vincent Allore says:

    I worked in a Psychiatric hospital for many years. Most people who find themselves there are not there because they are seeking help or treatment on their own but someone else has determined that they need to be there for treatment. People/patients would come in and be distrustful of the staff, their doctors, refuse to be compliant with their treatment plans, refuse to take the medication prescribed, had their visitors try to smuggle in contraband when they came to visit. They would assault the staff that are there trying to help because, they; didn’t like the food,the amount of food, didn’t like getting up in the morning, not being allowed to engage in any socially unaccepted behavior, wanted to do nothing but watch television, sleep, smoke cigarettes (or other substance), have their alcohol.
    Accusing the staff of being “mean” to them or being abused was the most common form of revenge used by the patients and their family members.

  9. alfred says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I don’t think the nut houses I was went to had that much in the way of civil treatment I was choked drugged over dosed and had seizures and side effects for years. Many times the intensive treatment ward was better than the cottages.The hospital was closed down for abuse and the money it took to run it was turned over to community treatment. So I totally dis agree that I had any say in this but I am glad I am not one of the many folks buried in potters field.

  10. Kelly Owens says:

    I have never felt more validated about hospitalization. I am still traumatized by being in them. we are warehoused and punished all the time. thank you so much for your story. I am looking into inpatient treatment for BPD but really want to go to one that does schema based and/or mentalization. DBT did Not help me at all.
    Thanks for any suggestions. Take Care

  11. Ellen Olenska says:

    I have been hospitalized for depression several times. This experiences were far more damaging than helpful. I am certain if a person is not depressed before entering one of these institutions, they will be after. The stays are too short to accomplish anything. The staff is rude and treat you like you are bothering them if you ask for anything. As others have alluded, “punishment” is still a major form of “treatment”. All of your rights are taken away. I had a psychiatrist threaten to get a court order to force me to take a medication I did not want to take. If I was in the hospital with a broken leg or pneumonia, no doctor could ever do that. I refuse to ever go to one of those facilities ever again. My money would be better spent on a plane ticket to Paris, and I’d probably feel a lot better.

  12. Ellen Olenska says:

    sorry, that is “these experiences”

  13. Ellen Olenska says:

    Becky, how did you go about getting the hospital cited for the improper restraints, etc. Did you need an attorney? I imagine the laws are different in different states. I understand if you are not comfortable answering because of confidentiality, but in what state was this hospital located?

  14. Nay says:

    I had a stay in an impatient facility here in Australia. Some of the staff were nice like the student nurses but mostly it was crap. I was at uni at the time and I was told my lecturers would be notified so I didn’t fail the subject. No one told them and I failed. The staff said someone was suppose to come check my teeth since they weren’t great of course no one came. No one even bothered to explain anything to me even when I asked. I ended up learning more from the patients than the staff. Heck they wanted to take my iPod because they thought I could get on the Internet but they didn’t understand the network or wifi was password protected so I couldn’t. Overall I found better help with a local mental health program than my stay. Heck they wanted to keep me for an extra week because I had low iron levels which I’d had for a few years before I had depression which lead me to be hospitalized. Generally it was a pretty crappy experience. I even told them that on their patient feedback forms!!!!

  15. Becky Oberg says:

    Sorry your experience was so bad. I’ve had bad experiences too, but on the whole they’ve been tolerable.

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