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'Inpatient' Takes You Inside a 72-Hour Stay at a Psychiatric Hospital

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When Alana Zablocki first started working on “Inpatient,” she wanted to explain her own psychiatric hospitalization — an experience that had always been hard for her to describe. Now, her interactive novel is available for anyone to “play,” and takes a reader through 72 hours in a psychiatric hospital, shedding light on what it’s like in a place so many still find mysterious. 

The “72 hours” time-frame is significant. Although the main character, Jessica, checks herself into the hospital voluntarily, 72 hours is typically how long a hospital can hold a patient who is there involuntarily.

“In a psychiatric ward, you lose a lot of power. You’re giving away some of your own personal agency,” Zablocki, who lives in Canada, told The Mighty. “This loss of power, regardless of how well they treat you, can be traumatizing — but especially if you’re not being treated well. Even in any other [hospital] situation, the doctors or nurses have a certain level of power… But especially in the mental health system, you’re giving up a lot.”

Zablocki, who has a background in programming, said she was inspired by other interactive fiction games like Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest.

The simulation starts in the middle of a mental health crisis. You (playing as Jessica) feel hopeless and suicidal, so you take a taxi to your local psychiatric hospital. What you do from there is up to you, and in “choose your own adventure” style, the different decisions you make effect what happens in the story. From smaller decisions (What should you do while you’re waiting in the ER? Stare at the wall or read a newspaper?) to larger ones (Your doctor asks if you’re suicidal. Do you tell him the truth?), the text you read changes depending on what you choose. You meet other patients, nurses and therapists — Zablocki said it was important to her that there was a diverse cast of characters, so the game features people of color and those in the LGBTQ+ community. Although the story is based on Zablocki’s experience, all the people you meet are fictional.

For those who’ve been hospitalized, the game can bring forward familiar feelings.

We asked a few people in our Mighty community who’ve been in psychiatric hospitals to go through the simulation and tell us if “Inpatient” reflects their experiences.

Stephanie Trzyna, who lives with depression and anxiety, said, for the most part, the simulation was accurate to her experiences. She’s been hospitalized in a psychiatric ward twice. She told us:

“Jessica’s feelings I could wholeheartedly relate to.  The shame, the guilt, [feeling like] no one will care if I die. One phrase of hers struck me, ‘… You listen to your brain replay the events leading you here. It repeats again, and again, and again. It is physically painful to keep thinking, but you can’t find a way to stop it.’ This was me.”

Madelyn Heslet, who lives with bipolar and borderline personality disorder, described the game as “spot on,” and said she especially related to the friendships Jessica fosters, and how uncomfortable her bedroom was.

“I definitely believe this game is a valuable resource that could be used to teach mental health professionals how to better themselves and their policies in mental health wards. It could also be valuable for family members and friends of those admitted because they could play the game and gain an understanding of what their loved one is going through.”

Alicia Raimundo, who’s also been hospitalized for her mental health, said while she thinks a simulation like this is important, it could definitely be a trigger for those sensitive to the topic. “I would really caution folks without spoons or having bad days not to engage with it,” she said. “Inpatient” does start with a trigger warning, which reads, “Please do not play this game if you’re in a bad place — especially if you’re in a crisis.”

As far as what she hopes others will take away from going through “Inpatient,” Zablocki says her main goals are to increase empathy towards people who find themselves in these situations, and for mental health professionals to have a window into what this experience is like from a patient’s perspective.

I just want them to understand what I’ve been though a bit better. I think we need more empathy for people who access psychiatric care,” she said. “Especially video gaming, we need more representations that aren’t horror movies. Not to say it’s a fun time. But we’re all regular people interacting with this system.”

You can play “Inpatient” here. It’s free to play, but there is an option to donate.

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 “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

Thinkstock photo via Pablo_K

Originally published: July 20, 2017
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