Psychiatric Hospitalization: What I Wish I'd Known

March 7, 2012 Becky Oberg

... 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.

APA Reference
Oberg, B. (2012, March 7). Psychiatric Hospitalization: What I Wish I'd Known, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Becky Oberg

June, 30 2016 at 4:44 pm

My first and only hospitalization was due to rejection and a gas- lighting event that
occurred at a former job. The actual experience wasn't bad though afterward, it wasn't
necessary. If there is a reader contemplating hospitalization and you are not a threat to
yourself or anyone, avoid it. Also, if you go, DO NOT TELL ANYONE.
No matter how good, open you are, the stigma will be effected on you and you will greive
it through the course of your life. As a result of being open about it, I lost most of my
friends from that time period. Was made fun of and passed over for promotions. If I knew
what I know now, I would not have allowed it.

January, 30 2016 at 12:44 am

Kristy I'm sorry what you went through so have you taken or considered taking appropriate action against the staff? It's about time that bad psychiatrists and bad mental health officials should realize that their actions have negative consequences.

February, 8 2015 at 12:45 am

The staff did hurt me. They drugged me instead of letting me have a bloody night light with a drug that releases my inhabittions the next day they punished me for how I acted under the influence of the night time pills. They drug tested me from blood tests repeatedly because they would not believe that I had not taken drugs. They encouraged me to wrap my arms and legs around an attractive male nurse then were stunned I developed feelings for this nurse, and yelled at me because I sent him a note saying I wanted to have babies with him. They locked me in my room with another patient. I received no therapy in hospital except drugs. They kept me on a drug I had an allergic reaction too for three days. I could not get treatment for the flu. I became constipated from the meds and they did nothing. A nurse played news about the war 24/7 and it made me worse. She attempted to change my religion too. I was bored and they took my books away from me.
This was the worst seven weeks of my life.

August, 24 2014 at 11:22 pm

I work as a Support Worker (mental health outreach) with a large and well known NGO in Australia who supports people with diagnosed mental health issues as well as others.
Within our organisation, our clients are integral to all aspects of their recovery and are included in every step, kept fully informed. Our clients have all the information that we have and are encouraged to participate fully in meetings about themselves.
Our role is basically one of assisting them with their decisions in life, giving them tools to aid them, but it is their decisions to make, and they also need to take responsibility for these and the outcomes.
Others are under certain orders for their, or the public protection, ie forensic orders or Involuntary Treatment Orders. Even so, they still have certain rights that protect them from abuse, ie least restrictive practices etc...
Recovery is a process, a journey, and everyone travels that pathway in their own time and in their own way, decided by the client and I am lucky enough to assist them in this if they choose.
Unfortunately, in every field of human endeavour, you will find those who are not helpful, to those who are very helpful. Those who will listen to the experts (those who are experiencing it) and those who believe they know better than those who are experiencing it (what you are going through).
At the moment, the western world appears to be going through a transition phase from the purely 'medical model' of helping to one that is more holistic.
Everyone has rights, and in Australia at least, we have the Disability Standards which are meant to protect and serve people who have 'disabilities'.
Not that it means much, but, I hope that everyone have better and more helpful encounters with those who are meant to help, and that your road to recovery continues in a positive way.

August, 14 2014 at 9:24 am

I am pleased your experiences with hospital were relatively positive.
My advice to people in Australia is to ask for the number of the Official Visitor on admission. Then quietly let staff know you will call the official visitor if your Human Rigts get violated do this at every shift change during the first few days.
Step two is request to see the Consumer worker a member of staff who had a lived experience of mental illness. Ask them to explain recovery too you.
My personal experience of being admitted to an inpatient ward over ten years ago was the most traumatic experience in my life. When I was admitted the staff knew I was having delusions about the war in Iraq. They left the TV on and the then PM announced we were sending troops in. Apparently I broke the VCR what I don't understand is why it took seven nurses to subdue me I was under 70kg at the time. I was then given a needle against my will that wiped my memory for the next few days. After this they started taking my blood (I did not know at the time this was mostly to do drug tests). In the beginning I was allowed to wrap my arms and legs around an attractive male nurse due to my fear of needles later they would punish me for my attachment on said nurse. They continued to drug test me for at least the next five weeks up to daily. I have to this day never done an illegal drug. They sent nurses in to befriend me and try to make me confess to smoking cannabis which I did not do. Eventually my mother was able to stop the drug testing at first they refused to believe my parents and visitors that I didn't take drugs. I behaved inappropriately with other patients because I was manic without supervision. I was placed on a medication I clearly had an alergic reaction to on Friday and was forced to stay in it till Monday. My parents provided much better care for me once I came home, but it took seven weeks before they would release me. Recently I heard very disturbing rumors about worse Human Rights abuses in that psych ward and although I believe they are true I have no evidence to take to police. Patients are frequently locked in their shared rooms at night.
Recently a few friends of mine were placed in a local psychiatric emergency care unit (at different times). I was not allowed to take small nail polish in, they were not allowed to have a kindle, staff spent most if their time in the fish bowl observing patients through CCTV, one person was held there for more then a week (it is supposed to be a 72hr max) before leaving while still suicidal, another person was held for a suicide attpt when it was really just a medication problem, one person was released without any paperwork sent to his GP or given to him and that held up the process of him claiming in his income protection insurance. Their are no activities in PEC and I believe boredom relates to poorer outcomes for consumers. People should not be left alone
with their unwell thoughts.
If you can manage without hospital through help from NGO's and support groups, and private psychologist and psychiatrist avoid public hospitals at all costs. Only go there if the alternative is you won't survive.

February, 1 2013 at 5:19 am

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!!!!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Becky Oberg
February, 5 2013 at 3:50 am

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

Ellen Olenska
March, 25 2012 at 2:23 pm

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?

Ellen Olenska
March, 25 2012 at 2:19 pm

sorry, that is "these experiences"

Ellen Olenska
March, 25 2012 at 2:18 pm

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.

Kelly Owens
March, 22 2012 at 3:19 pm

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

March, 20 2012 at 8:43 pm

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.

Vincent Allore
March, 20 2012 at 11:46 am

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.

March, 20 2012 at 9:39 am

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.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Becky Oberg
March, 20 2012 at 10:22 am

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.

Dr Musli Ferati
March, 17 2012 at 9:28 pm

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.

Cathy Sikorski
March, 12 2012 at 9:38 am

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.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Becky Oberg
March, 12 2012 at 12:05 pm

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.

March, 8 2012 at 7:24 am

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.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Becky Oberg
March, 12 2012 at 12:04 pm

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

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Anna Beil
October, 24 2018 at 2:16 pm

Hi, I don't think it's sometimes, I think it's more common than you think. And I think that only putting your rosy account of a decent place is misleading and irresponsible. I'd been hospitalized 11 times before, and my 12th time was every bit as horrible as those schoolchildren stories, and worse. I was put in an upright restraint chair in a tiny room, 5 times or 6 times over the course of a 3 week stay in a hospital. Mind you, in 10 years and 11 other hospitalizations, I'd never had issues like this before. Additionally, I was backhanded in the face by a male nurse, who told me to "f**k off" and REFUSED multiple times to give me my PRN. I was manhandled by a female nurse, who left bruises in the shape of her fingers. I had unprotected sex with a male patient not long after one of my releases from restraints while on the effects of THREE sedating injections at once. I wasn't forced, but how could that be allowed? I never once violently attacked any staff member or patient, except twice after being fully restrained and manhandled and injected, I did spit in one of the nurses faces, wrists, legs, upper arms, hips bound in the metal chair. I was forced to piss myself in that upright metal chair, was not allowed to go to the bathroom that was attached to the restraint room. They absolutely were sadistic and out to hurt many patients. ONE nurses' aid took me under my wing, and was my saving grace. I assumed there weren't any legal ramifications for the actions of the hospital and staff. I made a formal report, in writing, facilitated by the "patient advocate," and have heard absolutely nothing about the beatings, the prolonged time in restraints, and the refusal to provide medication. It's been 7 months; i don't know how to recover.

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