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3 Ways COVID-19 Makes Psychiatric Hospitals Stays Harder

It’s fair to say there’s not one human on this planet who hasn’t felt their mental health tested since the arrival of COVID-19. Whether directly, or as a ripple affect of someone else. That’s a given.

For those who struggle with mental health conditions, especially complex ones like myself, this has only been amplified. I have a diagnosis of personality disorder. This is still new to me, even though it’s been a couple of years, but I’ve also struggled with eating disorders. As a result, I’ve been in and out of hospitals for a decade, so I’ve noticed some big changes in the atmosphere and process of being on a mental health ward since COVID-19.

1. Staff wearing scrubs.

I’m lucky to live in a small town in England (Grimsby) where staff at our local mental health services are able to wear their own clothes as uniform in normal times. It’s meant to help break down any barriers between staff and service users. It represents us being on the same level and creates the message they are approachable.

Since COVID-19, staff look like they’ve been produced by a machine, dark blue scrub-covered robots with masks to hide everything but peeping eyes. Whereas before, people were bursting aesthetically with their personalities. The introduction of uniforms did make the barrier between staff and me feel humongous at first — higher than a barbed-wire fence in a jail garden, but over time I got used to it.

I suppose with the dark blue scrubs, came the stark reminder this dangerous virus-thing was fiercely real, and that was their armor in a war. In the end, I got used to it, and I imagined how I’d feel as a staff member, and actually it would be easier to get ready in the mornings by not having to choose what to wear!

When patients first get admitted, before being tested for the virus, staff also have to wear a disposable apron and gloves which not only adds to the military affect, but can also make you feel like there is something wrong with your whole being — like you are the virus. It reminds me of the scene near the end of “E.T.” For people with certain disorders, I imagine this would be even more challenging, such as paranoid schizophrenia, etc.

2. Staff wearing masks at all times in the psych ward.

The wearing of masks is of course obvious and expected. But when you struggle significantly with your emotion regulation and relationships because of this, masks throw another spanner into the works. Are they smiling at you? Are they mad? Are they smirking at someone else about you? It’s so difficult to read emotions in others, so it’s also hard to judge whether someone is validating your emotions and experiences or not. With a blank expression presented in the form of a pale blue rectangle, you don’t always know how the health care person is reacting.

I know personally, I get paranoid when my self-esteem is low. So, this leads to me worrying people are making eye contact and smirking about me when wearing masks, or are cringing out at my actions. Or are completely not getting what I’m on about. Or are basically not validating my emotions or situation. Did they smile at me when I smiled at them? All of this, and more becomes part of the hospital experience whilst masks are the norm.

As staff were also deployed to other areas, and there were of course some people shielding, it meant even the faces of staff you did know well and were familiar with, weren’t always around. So, a lot of new masked faces arrived. This does not help with anxiety at first, but overall our local mental health service did a remarkable job settling everyone the best they could in such uncertain times.

3. Isolation while waiting for COVID-19 test results.

The big one. Isolation. It’s been an unpleasant element of most of our lives over the past few years. On my local mental health unit, this was the very first, fundamental thing we had to do — before and as we were tested for coronavirus. It was our moment of starring as E.T, a vulnerable lost alien. Once swabbed, we had to stay in our rooms for at least three days until the results came back, so the ward was as COVID-free as possible (now results are back within a few hours). Imagine feeling suicidal, or psychotic, and being on your own within four small walls for all this time. It was difficult to say the least. And it definitely made my stay on a mental health unit longer than what it would usually be.

Once tested negative, and being allowed into communal areas, it became actually one of the most “normal” sociable experiences anyone could have during the COVID period. You could socialize with others who had tested negative, without having to wear a mask. Social distancing was still advised, but once most people were out of the isolation period, sitting at the table at lunch with the other patient felt like some weird grand celebration.

So, as much as there were more challenges to face during a mental health crisis, our services embraced change for the better. As a service user, my respect and admiration for health care professionals working in mental health has increased hugely, and as a result, I have now actually applied to train as a mental health social worker.

Getty image by dangrytsku

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