Friday, February 22, 2013

Destigamtizing: My Time in a Mental Health Institution.

What do you think of when you hear "mental institution"?  

Chances are you think "insane asylum", "loonie bin", "crazy house" all very dated and discriminative phrases. In a previous post I commented on the needed to continue to work against the stigma by changing the language, this is a perfect example. We don't use these phrases anymore at least not without the odd look from anyone hearing them. Most likely, you think of something you've seen on TV or in a movie, unless you've actually been in a mental health hospital, your perspective will most likely be media driven. Mental health hospitals are perceived to be filled with screaming patients, the old guy sitting staring mindlessly into space, the patient who needs to be physically subdued, the young woman rocking back and forth singing quietly to herself. At least, that's what I've seen in the media. This is not to say these types of patients don't exist, one in four patients need to be physically subdued and the majority of those are in a general hospital not a psychiatric hospital. Most patients in a psychiatric hospital suffer from mood disorders, addictions, eating disorders, and trauma, all relatively high functioning for their respective illnesses, but sometimes their illness becomes exacerbated to the point of profoundly reduced functioning, usually by workplace stress or family matters, at which time they need long term care.

 Mental health hospitals, or at least the one I was admitted to for two months for a mood and anxiety disorder, are nothing like what is depicted in ANY movie I've ever seen including "Silver Linings Play Book". There aren't any bars on the windows, patients aren't walking around in striped, prison looking johnny shirts, alleged victims of shock therapy are not being wheeled back to their rooms in a comatose state, and doctors and nurses don't wear lab coats or scrubs and speak to patients in a condescending tone as if they were small children or people unworthy of dignity and respect. So what does it look like then?

Mental health hospitals don't even look or feel like medical hospitals with  the prominent "hospital green" everyone knows, the scrubs, the scent of sterility, the clinical atmosphere, and the somberness created by the reality of sickness and death. The atmosphere is welcoming and pleasant with plants lining the hallways, benches here and there so you can sit and chat with a visitor or fellow patient, beautiful paintings on the walls, and inspirational messages such as "Believe" dispersed throughout. The grounds are also beautifully landscaped to provide a place of serenity and peace for the patients. Not what you usually see in the movies unless of course, you're in the states and you're paying big bucks to go to a "high class" hospital, but from what I understand most psychiatric hospitals in Ontario, and there are only four provincial run hospitals for 1.2 million people with mental illness, are fairly similar.

The patients are fully dressed, walking about freely and often times smiling. It wasn't unusual to witness someone crying in the hallway or having a panic attack, especially in my ward of mood disorders, and everyone who walked by knew why it was happening and felt nothing but sympathy, because most likely they've had a similar experience. I was one of those people. I sat in a chair in a hall for all to see while fending off a panic attack caused by a PTSD trigger, so I could eventually return to my room. The attack was severe and my shaking was intense, but that's why I was there, to learn how to better cope with those moments, because they would come again. As people walked by, they would look at me sympathetically, some would stop and ask "are you OK? Do you need  anything?" or sometimes someone would just sit with me till the worst had past, and I would do the same for others. We bear witness to each others' pain and suffering in a compassionate and inclusive manner. There is an unspoken acknowledgement, a respect, a positive atmosphere created by both the staff and the patients because in here, everyone understands each other.

The staff don't "talk down" or condescend to patients like in movies. They are compassionate, kind, and extremely understanding and they dress in plain clothes, just like the rest of us, even the doctors don't wear so much as a lab coat identifying them as "authority figures". We are given choices about are treatment, and the staff make us aware of those choices and respect them. We are equals in many respects.  In the "hospital" I was admitted to many visitors commented on the positive atmosphere and how welcoming and accepting both patients and staff were f visitors. So you can appreciate the shock and adjustment when I had to return to a society that makes "unfounded" comments and a media that "stereotypes" much of mental illness. I wanted to hide, or at least I did.

Shock therapy or what is more aptly termed ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is not the inhumane treatment depicted in the movies that renders the patient drooling and completely disabled. It can be an incredibly effective treatment in many cases where years of medication have not worked. I have seen people who, prior to ECT , were withdrawn, extremely nervous and self conscious, quiet, depressed, unhappy, social phobics, and after only two treatments are smiling more, chatting more, and interacting with others just like you and I. It is profoundly moving to witness such dramatic progress in such a short period of time with someone who has become your friend over your time there, you have to see it to truly appreciate how vastly improved is their quality of life. The therapy reboots the signals in the brain so that hopefully now the patient will respond to medication and eliminate the need for further ECT. Many people, however, are shocked, no pun intended, when they hear such "barbaric" treatment still exists. A vast social misunderstanding due to ignorance.

Mental health hospitals are not anything near what is depicted in the media, so please don't base any of your perceptions on that view, it's sensational, dramatic, and is meant to sell, not be accurate. I also know that some folks are a little reluctant in visiting a loved one in a mental institute, because of these media driven misconceptions, so loved ones are often times left alone in these hospitals, not receiving support from the outside thereby being excluded again because of their disability. It takes a great deal of courage to face your disability and accept help for it, they need your support. I'm certain if you were to take a chance and visit someone, not in a general hospital psych ward, they are very different, but in a mental health hospital, you might be pleasantly surprised. You will find a world filled with positivity, support, welcoming faces, laughter, yes, we often laugh at ourselves, fellowship, and most of all, hope that things will get better. In fact, you might even quietly wonder what the outside world would be like if it were a bit more like the world inside of that hospital. I'm going back next month for the PTSD program, and I'm a little afraid of what I will discover, but discovery is the name of the game, but I'm also very much looking forward to being there again.


  1. Lisa;
    I enjoyed your article but unfortunately I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Etobicoke for 2 months prior to my stay at HW.
    It was the most scariest place I have ever been in, I had to be in a ward with 3 other women-1 was there because she had multiple personalities;-another because was psychotic episodes and would throw things at you if you even looked her way by accident;the third woman who was only 18 was paranoid and thought her ex and his father were after her, spying on her when she was in her house; you had to walk around on eggshells with these ladies. If you even tried to ask if they needed anything they would freak out on you and start yelling that you were going to kill them, so needless to say I stayed away
    I stayed in the tv lounge for as much as possible but even in there you had to watch your p's & q's.
    I was in with gang bangers, they were in there because they went off their meds, one young man stabbed a guy because he looked at his girlfriend.
    another man there would pace around the whole ward (265 steps) he has been in & out for 30+ years for psychotic episodes
    another man also paced the floor and when he first came in I had said "hello", he looked at me with such a fierce look (scared the shit out of me) and told me not to talk to him, so needless to say I didn't then the next time I had saw him he said "hello how was my day" the next time he would look at you as if he could see through you. When I mentioned this to the recreational therapist, she told me to stay away from him, it would be for my own safety.
    By my 2nd week I was so used to being there that you could be sitting with someone and there would be a fight (code White) and you wouldn't even think twice about it and you just went on your merry way.
    I could go on but yes unfortunately there are still psychiatric hospitals that are there for the sake of having somewhere to put us until you are stable enough on your meds then you are heaved to the road till the next time you are brought in.
    Oh ya, people who are arrested are given the choice of spending it in jail for 72 hours or going to this hospital for the 72 hours. Nice huh! not!
    So yes for me going to HW was a God Send because if I had to go back there I would not be here today

  2. I'm so sorry, what a horrifying experience that must have been for you, unfortunately it is not an uncommon story for patients in psych wards in general hospitals which is where I assume you were. The quality of care is universes apart, because of the lack of expertise, lack of beds, and lack of time. From what I'm told, people are moved there as quickly as possible, get your meds, make sure they don't make you worse, then off you go, kinda like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. We need to let our MP's know that that kind of care is not acceptable. New mothers would not be put in the same ward as the terminally ill, but it's OK to mix it up with the mentally ill, I guess. Thank you again for sharing your story :)

  3. In addition, I've heard the same story from patients in general hospital psych wards IN VARIOUS PROVINCES ACROSS COUNTRY!



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