woman wearing striped top in greenhouse laughing

What You Don't Expect to Hear in the Psych Ward


There are sounds you expect to hear in a psych ward. You expect to hear nurses talking to patients, medical carts rolling, thermometers beeping, doors opening and closing for 15-minute checks, and occasionally, alarms sounding. But one thing you don’t expect to hear in a psych ward is laughter. And I don’t just mean the awkward, fake laughter, like when you first meet someone or are uncomfortable. I mean full-out, belly laughter that makes your eyes water and your stomach hurt.

When I spent a week in a psych ward, I laughed far harder than I had in the months leading up to it. This might be surprising because over those months my depression had gradually worsened. You would think laughing would gradually decrease as my mood went south, and there would be no laughter by the time I was in the psych ward. And you’re right in that laughing had decreased over the months leading up to being hospitalized. But after a few days in the psych ward, once the patients had met and started getting more comfortable with one another, the laughter exploded.

I can’t remember a lot of what we were laughing about. And of what I do remember, I won’t share most of it because it isn’t funny unless you have also been in a psych ward. It’s a very dry, dark humor, and some of it could probably be offensive to someone who hasn’t had those experiences. We laughed about the millions of rules on the psych ward. For example, I wasn’t allowed scrunchies for my hair. If someone complained about a rule or talked about what they wanted to do once they got out I would often jokingly exclaim in exasperation, “I just want a scrunchie!” We would laugh at things nurses said, or the odd looks they gave us. Once I had asked a nurse for a pair of hospital socks from the supply closet. She said something funny about how she was already late to a meeting so might as well get it now, and then went into the closet. I stood outside waiting and was still chuckling a bit at her comment. Another nurse passed, gave me a deeply concerned look, and questioned, “Are you OK?” Granted, to her it looked like I was standing in the hallway just laughing to myself. A worrying but perhaps not surprising image of someone in a psych ward. I quickly reassured her that yes, I was fine. I was just waiting for socks. When I rushed to tell the other patients what had happened, this story was a hit. I often wondered if hearing us laugh this much scared the nurses and doctors, but thinking about this just made us laugh more.

In the psych ward, you get to a point where everything is funny because you are desperate for a distraction from your own thoughts and emotions. I think the laughter also stems from the community that forms. When you are in hospital for a mental illness, it’s no secret to anyone else on the ward why you are there. You’re either suicidal, detoxing from drugs, psychotic, or some combination of the three. Everyone there is scared and uncomfortable, and because of this also extremely vulnerable. Yet around you are 20 or so other people going through incredibly similar struggles. The empathy and support for one another is natural, even though you’ve just met and have little else in common.

After the morning psychoeducation groups, there isn’t a lot to do in a psych ward. So simply because you are bored (and because it will look good to the doctors), you end up hanging out in the common areas with the other patients. I’m quite the introvert, and even I spent a lot of time there. We had SVU marathons, played the game Fact or Crap, and ordered late night mac and cheese.

Now it would be a massive stretch to say I enjoyed my time in there. I was still sick and needed to be there for a reason. Plus, as someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the lack of my usual routine and sense of control was terrifying. Still, it wasn’t a completely awful experience. After all, a lot of therapies teach to not view the world in black and white, but to see the grays too.

I can look back on those evenings spent with the other patients and even have some fond memories. I’ll certainly remember the laughing fits, and with a sense of gratitude. It kept me going through tough, sad, long, boring hours on the ward. It kept me connected with others and helped prepare me to re-enter the “real” world. Perhaps most importantly, the laughter planted tiny seeds of hope for a future I might be able to have, one that I couldn’t have seen alone. Now it’s time to keep laughing and keep watering those seeds.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Unsplash photo via Brooke Cagle

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