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The 3 Types of Patients I Met During My Psych Ward Stay

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It’s no secret people are fascinated by inpatient mental health departments. Whether that’s coming from a place of empathy or a curiosity about those with mental illness, it’s important to understand what life on the ward is really like.

Movies and books will often take a couple of true experiences and romanticize or dramatize them beyond recognition. I’d like to use my experiences to give a more grounded depiction. Every hospital and every patient will have a unique experience, but I feel many people who have spent time in an inpatient unit will be able to relate.

I’m going to talk about some of the relationships you might form as a patient. While in hospital, my time spent connecting and working with others was an essential component of my treatment. I was encouraged to attend and participate in as many group sessions as possible. Most of us ate meals in the common area together. I had a shared room.

All of this is to say inpatient units, by design, foster quite a bit of interaction between patients. Let’s take a look at three types of patients that played crucial roles in my recovery while in the hospital.

1. The “veteran.”

You’ll likely know this patient as soon as you see them. They’re probably the first person to introduce themselves and answer some of your questions (even if you don’t ask). The veteran is a patient who’s been there and done that. They know which shower has good water pressure, which deck of cards is missing an ace and they’re on a first-name basis with every nurse.

I couldn’t be more grateful to have met some patients like this, especially during my first inpatient stay. It can be a scary and disorienting experience to be admitted for the first time. Meeting someone so calm and comfortable is soothing in a way. As knowledgeable and skilled as the doctors and nurses may be, there’s no substitute for someone who’s been in your shoes telling you everything will be OK.

2. The BWFF (best ward friend forever).

Put any group of people together for a certain amount of time and you’ll see friendships form. An inpatient mental health unit is no different. Over the course of meals, downtime and group sessions, we get to know each other pretty quickly. People who share interests and get along will usually end up eating meals, playing cards, chatting and supporting each other.

This might be a few people or it might just be one. These friendships can help you open up about your experiences. It’s a more direct and personal type of support. In my experience, these friendships are built to last. There’s something about connecting with someone while at your most vulnerable that creates a deep and lasting bond.

3. The eye-opener.

A week in an inpatient unit can teach you more about life than you’ll ever learn otherwise. My worldview, my understanding of what the human experience is, has been informed in no small part by my time in hospital.

These “eye-opener” patients can be anyone. You might even be this person for someone else without realizing it! It’s not just that you can meet people of various ages and backgrounds, it’s not just that mental illness doesn’t discriminate between rich or poor, it’s the fact each individual is there to get healthy, and yet each individual plays an essential role in the recovery of the others.

When people open up in a group therapy session, the healing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You learn from every word that’s spoken. The doctors and nurses and occupational therapists give you expert advice. The other patients, however, give you life lessons. I’ve spent time with people who have the same illness as I do, but decades more life experience. I’ve shared rooms with patients who have completely different diagnoses. You never see strength until you see vulnerability, and we are often at our most vulnerable during our stay in a hospital.

Why did I choose those three types?

There are countless ways to categorize patients. You could do it by gender, sex, race, diagnosis, etc. But that doesn’t really tell you what it’s like. The truth is, I believe the relationships formed between patients are infinitely more important than the hardships which brought them together. The patients in these units are, collectively, perhaps the most compassionate and open-minded people I’ve ever met.

It can be shocking, especially if you go in expecting to see “Shutter Island.” The truth is at the same time far less dramatic and much more moving. The truth is the patients are people in need of help. We’re people who understand what it’s like to have distorted thoughts, addictions, unstable relationships and every other obstacle you can think of.

Yes, there are “code whites.” Yes, there are arguments and sometimes group therapy sessions get derailed. Yes, the food is barely edible. Yes, it can be boring as all hell. But that’s not what comes to mind when I think of my time in hospital.

Instead, I think about how wonderful a thing it is to be around people who, despite their own pain and struggles, are always willing to pick you up when you feel at your lowest.

Getty image by AnnaStills

Originally published: April 15, 2021
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