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5 Psych Ward Tips You Won't Hear From Your Therapist

The decision to commit yourself to a psychiatric hospital is not easy. It’s a scary thought to have almost everything taken away so you can focus on your most uncomfortable and painful feelings. There are also a lot of unknowns, especially when the only depictions you may have ever seen are through TV shows or in movies. However, if you feel you need to be admitted, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it shows your courage and willingness to live a better life. I will repeat once more there is nothing to be ashamed of. To help better understand this treatment option, I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned along the way — more so the things you don’t hear in the media or through your therapist. While this decision might be scary to make, it is a huge step on your journey to becoming the best version of yourself you can be.

1. Admission can take a while.

If you go through an emergency room, it can take hours to days to get a bed in a proper facility. In this transition period, you will usually have your belongings taken away and it is the closest you will get to being in a room that has one bed and four blank walls. During this period, visitors are usually not allowed. Sometimes you will be taken to a facility in a different city by ambulance if there are no beds nearby. I once met someone who was transferred from another state. Staff will usually make special accommodations for your visitors if this were to happen to you.

2. You will have a lot of downtime.

It’s important to remember this is a temporary situation and most, if not all, of the rules are to help you get better. If you ask the staff for a notebook or journal, they will usually have one. Some places have libraries, others have art supplies sitting out or available by request. There are typically a few board games somewhere in a supply closet. It is important to always ask before using these kinds of supplies because there may be restrictions you don’t know about. We all lost our open-access colored pencil privileges when one patient used them to try and stab others — I should note here the staff is very skilled at keeping all patients safe. To fill my downtime, I read books (“Harry Potter” was a great series to revisit), I colored, journaled, played Uno and Scrabble, completed print-out crosswords and hidden pictures, napped, walked back and forth around the unit and took advantage of scheduled activities like watching a movie or playing bingo. I had long, productive chats with the other patients and we would tell fun stories to pass the time. Usually you can have some items brought to you by loved ones, but they will always be checked thoroughly by staff before you receive them. A general rule of thumb is nothing sharp, nothing profane and nothing with strings or spiral-bound. Also, no electronics.

3. Many of the other patients look, talk and sound completely “normal” (because they are).

Sometimes you can forget they’re going through very heavy stuff. You will bond quickly with these people as you spend every waking hour with them, and it can be sad to see them discharged. They are mothers, students, successful business owners, athletes, even therapists themselves. We all go through difficult things in life and mental illness does not discriminate. Everybody is there for a different reason, but you will find common ground and make “friends.” It is important to remember the relationships you create inside of a facility should be dealt with caution. It is a unique situation, spending so much time with these people, but everyone is there because they are going through some of the worst days of their entire lives, just like you. Be extremely cautious extending your friendships with them outside of the hospital as it is rarely productive or healthy.

4. There will also be people who are very, very unwell.

It can be hard to watch and deal with at times, and can also feel scary. There are so few options for people with mental illness and you can get put on a ward with people who very clearly need higher levels of care: patients who expose themselves, get into fights, urinate themselves or on the floor, who need near-constant supervision and sedation and as mentioned above, can get violent. This is not the norm and it bears repeating the staff is trained in keeping you safe. If you ever feel uncomfortable or unsafe due to another patient, talk to the staff ASAP. Aside from the one incident with the colored pencils, I have seen patients banging their heads against the wall, yelling at the top of their lungs and fake taking their medication. This is none of your business as “exciting” as it may be. These people are very sick and only appropriate staff members should be taking care of them.

5. Even if you came in voluntarily, the doctors may keep you longer than you intended.

This can happen if you don’t attend groups or meals, if you aren’t taking care of yourself like showering and getting laundry done, if you refuse to take your medication — there are a lot of factors that go into when your discharge might be. They definitely understand new medications can make you sleepy, but it usually wears off after a bit. It’s safe to just assume you are being watched at all times by nurses and techs. They check on you periodically and give these reports to the doctors.

Remember: It is perfectly OK to realize you need some extra help. You are there to work on yourself and your first priority should always be you. It is a humbling experience being in a psych ward, but it makes you no less of a human. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. Also, all psych hospitals are different, the things I wrote above apply to two different ones I’ve been in, but I know that doesn’t mean they are all the same. Most of the time, you will only be there for a short while, five to seven days seemed to be the average for the patients where I was. If you are there longer, please try to remember it is so you can begin to get things back on track. Truly, they want to help you succeed. You will learn a lot of coping skills and ways to get through your current and future situations. The experience can be invaluable and completely life-changing if you let it.

Getty image via Joko Yulianto

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