What It's Like Staying at a Veteran's Psychiatric Hospital


This morning, I left a VA hospital. It really doesn’t matter which one. I’ve been to several and the story I want to tell is the same for all of them. I went in because I have bipolar disorder II and severe anxiety with panic attacks, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yeah, that’s a lot of diagnoses, but that’s my life. I was admitted 10 days ago because my medication became ineffective for the control of the panic attacks, and I became suicidal during them.

I spent 24 hours waiting in my local emergency room, waiting for the communication lines to be right. It does take training on the part of the ER staff to know who to call at Department of Veterans Affairs to find out how to admit into a veteran’s facility. The doctor at my local told me who to talk to in case this ever came up again, so I knew and could tell the ER staff. Unusual, but it will work if anyone there will listen to the “crazy” patient. If not, I can call the crisis line at the VA and get one of the workers there to get the ball rolling, so a long wait won’t happen unless there just isn’t a bed.

Bad first day, right? Not really, because I got medical clearance there and had all my admittance paperwork done before I arrived at the VA hospital. Once there, because I had been a patient there before, they gave me food and let me take a nap before doing the in-processing. That’s where my story really begins…

The staff there are wonderful. It’s kind of an honor system. For the first 24 hours, you don’t get your clothes — you wear scrubs. Even if you are actively suicidal, if you make a contract not to hurt yourself, they will trust you. Now, you have to live up to that contract and they do check up on it, but they don’t set someone on you to watch you pee and sleep on a suicide watch. One reason for that is the type of ward it is. This is a locked psychiatric ward with constant surveillance in all areas but the bathrooms. Another reason from the perspective of the patient is staffing. These guys just don’t have time to do suicide watches on someone who hasn’t tried something on the unit.

In my inpatient stays, there have been several dementia patients who have been placed there because there just isn’t anywhere else to put them. Also, there is an institutional belief on the part of both staff and patients that we take care of our own. They take extra time and that’s OK. Those of us who are a little more together emotionally help the ones who need to talk until a staffer is available.

Actually, the nursing retention there has been very consistent, such as one charge nurse who I always thought of as being a little stern and in charge. Kind of like a mother figure. She was the one everyone went to when we had a question we needed answering quickly. I don’t know how long she had been there, but in three stays over seven years, she was there each time so she knew the system so well.

The medication day nurse was a guy who either knew or could find out the answers to most of the common questions about what he dispensed. He also has a sense of humor that sneaks up behind you and bites you. He’s been there about 12 years, I think I remember him mentioning at one point.

Again, I remember him from my first visit, so he’s been dispensing medication there for at least seven years.

The final two have both been there for more than seven years and were nurses’ assistants. They are happy people who spread joy, even in the despair incoming patients are feeling. It’s almost impossible not to smile back when they smile back at you. One morning, I was barely awake and one of them asked me how I felt. I responded, “I’ll tell you when I wake up.” An hour later, she came by just to make sure I was OK.

They always make it feel like they’re a friend coming by when they know you’re having a tough time over a professional making an assessment of your moods. Even the psychiatrists do that. Of course, they have to be a little more obvious, but you see more of the human and less of professional, even when they retain their professional standing, if that makes any sense. My doctor happened to mention that she was wearing Crocs one day because she was rebelling against the no open-toed shoe rule.

I guess what I’ve been trying to say in all of this is: even though the patient has to do the work to get better, whether it’s addiction or other mental health issues, a good staff and fellow patients will make that journey a lot more pleasant and less of a hardship. Sometimes you can even get a laugh about a rebel doctor.

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 reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

If you are a veteran and need support right now, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. Or send a text message to 838255.

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Thinkstock photo via lorenzoantonucci


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