What I Need My Inpatient Mental Health Care Providers to Know
A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days engaged in a partial hospitalization program with the hope that I would gain a few more coping skills that would reduce the intensity of my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bipolar 1 symptoms. The program actually ended up to be a more of a “one-size-fits-all” program and it wasn’t truly beneficial to me. Without going into too many details, I had a couple of incidents of conflict where I felt disrespected by some of the employees there. This is not all that uncommon. It happens. Employees are just people in the end and some are not always sensitive, others might be experiencing a “bad day,” and still others are just there to “pick up a paycheck.”
The experience, however, got me to thinking about what I would like to say sometimes to those who treat me for my mental illness on my “worst days.” I decided to write an open letter to those who provide mental health care services, particularly those who do so in an inpatient setting or intensive outpatient program. The following sums up what I want those treating me to know. Maybe it will resonate with you as well.
Dear mental health care provider,
To you, I am more than likely just another patient in a fast-paced program that has the goal of crisis-stabilization. I am one of many that you serve in a busy environment where safety is more than likely your primary concern. With the number of people coming and going, it is to be expected that you might not ever truly know me. Between facilitating groups, completing necessary documentation, and other miscellaneous duties, there is very little time to actually connect to each patient in a meaningful and memorable way. In order to ensure safety, and a routine where programs run efficiently, the relationship between patient and provider is not one of equal power. Your role by its very nature, especially in an inpatient setting, is to enforce boundaries and rules to maintain the type of environment where people can receive the help they need in order to return to baseline. This dynamic, albeit necessary in ways, can be difficult for some of us to adapt to as it can feel not only constraining, but even oppressive, at times. In addition, the often sterile environment of some hospital settings and the loss of personal freedom can seem disorienting and demoralizing to someone seeking help.
As a patient, I am coming to you at my worst, often in a place where I may not be in complete control of my impulses, moods or perceptions. You see me when I am most vulnerable, often in the throes of an illness that I am doing my best to manage. Despite my efforts, there are times that the illness takes a hold, and I need a little help to return to my baseline. There is a lot of shame and embarrassment when I have to admit to myself and others that I need help to cope and manage the chronic illness of bipolar 1 that occasionally rears its ugly head, robbing me of my time, joy, relationships and even jobs.
When I walk through your doors or I am brought in by an ambulance, I am instantly reminded of how powerless I am, at times, to this debilitating illness. All my possessions, like my purse and anything else I bring in with me to the hospital, get stripped from me and I am asked to stand unclothed in a robe so that someone on staff can “search me.” I can remember being asked to do this each time I have been in inpatient, and yet, the actual occurrence of it I have conveniently blocked from my memory. As a victim of sexual assault, this is particularly dehumanizing and distressing for me. At one inpatient placement, I even was forced to wear a blue jumpsuit very similar to what is worn in a prison setting. The contents of my purse were dumped into a plastic bag. I felt violated, having my privacy breached and felt nearly treated as if I were a criminal.
When you see me, I am coming to you to at my “worst,” asking for your for help, but it can feel sometimes like I am part of a machine that doesn’t value or see my humanity. The first few days of treatment can feel somewhat numbing. Pink Floyd’s song “Comfortably Numb” comes to mind and the medications that I am pushed to take during an inpatient stay feels like what is conveyed in the lyrics: “just another pinprick” and “there will be no more — Ahhahhhaaa, but you might feel a little sick.” Often, the first day or two, I feel like just “another brick in the wall,” numb and disoriented, wishing I were anywhere else but back in this spot, vulnerable and raw.
When I walk through the hospital doors asking for your help, I carry with me 32 years of experience as a consumer of mental health services. I also am informed and aware of my patient rights. I may be struggling, but just in the past week or so, I was at work serving clientele as a social worker. I was sick and struggling, but holding it all together. I came to you because I had the insight and awareness to acknowledge that I need the help. I want to be seen as someone who is currently struggling, but respected as an individual who on most days is competent and insightful. Ultimately, I want to be seen as an individual who has many strengths, not just a mental illness you are treating.
Even on my worst days, when I am receiving care, I want to feel that I have a sense of agency over my health care. I want you to ask for my input and respect my right to decline treatment. Sometimes, it can take time for me to research and decide what I feel is best for my health. I’ve had nurses “talk over me,” even insist I was delusional because I wouldn’t take the medications that were initially ordered by the prescribing doctor at the hospital. I once even had a nurse threaten to “tie me up in a rubber room and inject me with my medications” if I continued to refuse. Sadly, due to the stigma surrounding my mental illness I know if I had reported this incident I would have not be seen as credible. Yet, many of us in treatment have endured abuses or threats like the one above.
Just because I live with a mental illness and am requesting help, does not mean that I am incapable, even while hospitalized, of making informed choices. Had I taken the medications prescribed by the doctor during some of my stays, it would have been too much for me. I know my body and I also know my rights. I have the right to decline medications. I earnestly am asking you to educate me, provide me with the information about the medication you are prescribing, allow me to research it, and even provide alternatives. Wouldn’t you want the same for yourself if hospitalized?
I realize that providers are just people and they make mistakes. I’ve had to remind a few of my providers that I couldn’t take certain medications due to drug interactions. Sometimes, they are too busy to look up a medication or have forgotten that an interaction exists. I realize providers are not walking encyclopedias and their knowledge may be limited. And I also understand that most people willingly trust what the doctor “orders”. I am someone who has had a few truly negative and scary experiences while taking medications and I am hesitant to start any new drug. Please give me the time I need so that I will feel comfortable trying another new medication. And please don’t take it personally if I question a medication you prescribe or even decline it. It is my body and I will do what I feel is safe and comfortable for me.
I also again want to remind you that I am at my worst when I come to you. I am sick, vulnerable and often raw. I again have to open up and tell a complete stranger things about myself that might be hard, stressful and downright painful. I feel exhausted and depressed after having to explain my history and symptoms to, yet again, another individual that, in a few days, I will never see again. The mere thought of disclosing and repeating my history once again can send me into panic and is nauseating for me. To you, I might be the new admit going to bed 107 that you have to quickly assess before the next patient arrives. But, for me, the whole experience feels dehumanizing and it often makes me feel powerless and small.
I sit in the chair slumped over across from you, often sharing the things I don’t want to share with anyone. So, please excuse me if I appear on edge, easily angered, defensive or irritated. For me, I am at the beginning of a stay where I will be thrust into groups with strangers, sleeping in a room on an uncomfortable bed with a roommate I do not know, and told when to eat and where I need to be for the next few days. Nothing feels “normal” at the moment.
For you, it is just another day at work and you’ll be home to your creature comforts soon enough. Your demeanor and approach with me can set me at ease and even bring a faint smile to my face, or it can make me feel ashamed, angered, or numb. I understand you are human as well, but I hope you are able to understand that I truly am at my “worst” and please be sensitive to that fact. It will make such a huge difference in my stay if you do.
During my stay with you, I will sit in groups and listen to some of the same approaches and interventions that have been introduced to me before. Initially, I may feel, on a certain level, that for me to wind up here again, I must have failed in some way. There is a lot of shame, grief and even rage that I am feeling. I wonder to myself: How did I wind up here again? I long for the group that tells me I am OK, despite my struggle of living with a mental illness. I appreciate the rare facilitator that starts the group out telling us that our chronic illnesses are nothing to be ashamed of and that we are not here because we “behaved badly” or that we somehow caused our illness. There is no shame in struggling. Many people “behave poorly” and have unhealthy habits, but do not land in an inpatient psychiatric setting requiring care. A mental illness is a true illness and if unhealthy habits were responsible for the struggle, many more people would carry a diagnosis. Please remember that I have an illness, not a “behavior issue” and that I do truly try to manage it.
I will also add while I am at it, that I wish I had a private room and the hospital would separate the men from women, particularly not allowing them to sleep on the same halls. This was distressing and distracting for me. I would also like for the environment to be less sterile and more homelike and for groups to be designed with functioning level in mind. Hey, I can have a wish list, right? Some groups are difficult for me to sit through because the information is not new to me.
On my worst days, when I find myself in an inpatient or intensive outpatient setting, please treat me exactly as you would like to be treated. I can respect certain safety measures as I am aware that they protect me as well as others in the program. And yet, please don’t talk “over me” or refuse to accept my input. I would prefer you not ransack my purse or insist I dress in a blue suit. I also want to be seen as an individual.
And, please, if I have a “meltdown” or an angry outburst and I later come to you to share why I was upset or I wish to apologize, it would be nice if you accepted my effort to resolve things graciously. There have been incidents in the past where I have tried to smooth things over and it was met with stonewalling and a complete disregard for my struggle. Please remember if I am in the hospital for my mood disorder, I might not have the best control over myself. If I did, I would not need to be in an inpatient setting. Like others, there is a lot of shame that I experience during times when I lose dignity and become verbally abusive when upset. I genuinely am not proud of these moments and if I am making the effort with you to apologize, my hope is as, a professional, you will at a minimum try to acknowledge that not only am I “at my worst” but I’m also in a position where my freedom and power has been stripped from me. The inpatient setting alone is abnormal and adapting to it can be a challenge for anyone. Often patients escalate as a result of responding to a system that is inherently dehumanizing, at times.
I feel so much needs to change regarding the structure of inpatient stays. So many of the patients need longer stays with additional services to truly stabilize. The current system is overwhelmed, rushed, and often the stay is too short to ensure a safe discharge. More time is needed to determine if the medication changes made are indeed actually effective. In the past, stays not only were longer, but the care was more individualized. I remember in the 1990s not only receiving a variety of physical and mental tests and assessments, but I also met a therapist one to two times a week. My recent hospital stays were too brief to actually ensure a correct diagnosis or to provide patient-centered care. Maybe it is too much to ask that a mental illness be treated like a physical one? A holistic approach would benefit patients to ensure that there isn’t any other reason for their symptoms. I shudder to think about the accuracy rate of determining one’s diagnosis or the safety of the discharge when stays are often too short to truly know the patient’s needs. This causes unnecessary recidivism, but again I guess insurance companies prefer to take that “gamble.” Sadly, lives are lost doing so. And for many, who suffer for years without adequate care, their quality of life is greatly diminished. This can lead to poor outcomes for some such as incarceration, homelessness or other health complications from lack of self-care.
My hope is that one day those who survey the hospitals to renew their accreditation involve a board of individuals who actually live with a mental illness who have been inpatient. Please consider our voices in the process. Many of us have ideas for how we wish to be treated and what we need for the experience to be better.
I will be the first to admit, I don’t always show my better side while in treatment. It is a demoralizing experience where, as an independent, educated and high-functioning individual, I feel my rights are stripped from me. If I am unlucky, there might be a few staff members that can make the experience intolerable. Many working in these settings are just people. I have experienced some truly effective and good providers in the mental health system and to those people, I am eternally grateful. But, the few “bad apples” can truly damage an individual who is already struggling, causing them to not ask for help again. That is why the quality of services matter so much to me. It can save a life. And it can enhance the quality of life for so many struggling.
Thanks again for taking the time to read my thoughts and concerns. It is just my perspective from the position of a patient being served in our current mental health care system.
A Mental Health Consumer
Image via contributor