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Why This Idea About Mental Health Hospitalization Needs to Change

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

After a high profile person like Chester Bennington dies by suicide, the conversation on mental health takes a national (sometimes worldwide) stage for a week or so. Then, as the waves of grief, support, and Tweets featuring the National Suicide Prevention Line lessen, the tide recedes and the topic of suicide is carried away with it until the next famous person is lost. It’s a cycle we in the mental health community have seen time and again. The RIP hashtags, the sharing of articles on the person lost and the insistence there is always help is inevitably followed by a stagnant silence and the return of suffocating stigma.

In my experience, stigma and misunderstanding are at an all-time high when one is in full mental health crisis and a hospital stay is necessary for safety. I’ve been hospitalized for mental health struggles, and the responses I experienced were a vivid reminder of how far we have to go in the fight against shame and minimization in our society.

There is such stigma around mental health diagnoses in general that I’m not sure many of us have even been able to touch on the misconceptions around a hospital stay. Mental health survivors and advocates are still fielding comments such as, “Oh, you take medication for your depression? Have you tried eating better?” and, “You go to therapy? Have you tried just… being happy and changing your mindset?” I read an article the other day that suggested antidepressants are not necessary and depression is actually caused by inflammation, specifically inflammation from consumption of gluten. I’m not joking. These are the thoughts floating around out there in the sea of stigma and complete ignorance to what it’s like to actually live your day-to-day life with a mental health diagnosis.

Take that misunderstanding and minimization and crank it right up to 11 to begin to imagine the reactions to mental health hospitalization. When you’re hospitalized for mental health, things get surreal very quickly. At first, it’s all hands on deck and loved ones assuming you are suddenly a completely different person. People call you to check in on you in the first few days at the hospital and you hear a tone in their voice that is completely alien. Their words are higher pitched and come in softer tones, like balloons taped in bubble wrap — like one misspoken word could hit with a force capable of shattering you. Like you suddenly are incapable of processing human interaction on any deep level, even though you are likely in the midst of examining the deepest, darkest parts of yourself. Like you are a fragile, antique mirror that’s already a little cracked, and they are handling you as gently as humanly possible to preserve what’s left of your original beauty, even though you are made of hardwood and have survived hundreds of scuffs, drops, and even back-of-the-hammer type blows over the course of your existence.

Then, you get out of the hospital. And that’s when the really awkward comments and interactions begin.

When I got home and my friends and family settled back into the knowledge I was still “me” — when it became obvious I was not fractured beyond repair and that recovery was not only possible, but had already started — some people in my life had what I can only describe as cognitive dissonance based on preconceived notions of what constitutes a mental health crisis. And that’s not their fault; that’s stigma. The notion that having a mental health crisis necessitates that you are no longer “you” — that you cannot possibly be the same person anymore, because the person you “were” never would have needed a hospital stay in the first place — seems to be the baseline assumption with which everyone is working. When it becomes obvious that those notions are incorrect, rather than changing those preconceived notions, the only way to approach the situation becomes the assumption that the situation was not actually as serious as initially thought. It’s simple misunderstanding of the complexities of mental health symptoms. But, especially in regard to a lifesaving hospital stay, this misinformation can be dangerous. The idea you have to be completely detached from everything people consider “you” to warrant a hospitalization is disastrous. The idea that psychiatric wards are there for anyone who wants to go can be deadly.

It may surprise you, but the number one comment I received upon being discharged and settling back into my regularly scheduled life was, “I wish I had the luxury of a hospital stay.” This comment came in many forms. “Sometimes, you just need to take a break, I guess.” “I probably could have used the hospital a few times in my life, but I had other obligations.” “I’m glad you were at a point in your life where you were able to take a timeout to work on you.” “I’d go to the hospital if I didn’t have work/school/kids/[insert responsibility here].”

And maybe you’re reading this and you think the same. I know I used to. There have been times in my life where a hospital stay would have been justified, but I didn’t go to the Emergency Room because I was ashamed to do so. I believed admitting myself to the hospital was choosing to drop my responsibilities in life, and would be selfish and childish, weak and overdramatic. So, despite having suicidal thoughts (and at some points, a cohesive plan), I just decided to white-knuckle it until the depression and suicidal thoughts broke. And thankfully, I made it through those times. But it easily could have gone the other way, and I would not be around to write this article right now.

Here’s the thing about mental health hospitalization, though. It’s just like any other hospitalization. You will not be admitted unless the professionals deem it necessary. You can’t walk into an ER and say, “I have a stomach bug and I really need a break from my life so I can heal, so I’d like you to admit me.” Hospital beds are a finite resource reserved for those who really need them to get better. If you are in dire need of care, you will be admitted. Otherwise, you are sent home with aftercare and follow-up instructions.

Whether physical or mental, a health crisis is a health crisis. I didn’t walk into the hospital and say, “I’m completely overwhelmed right now and I need a break from life, can I have a bed?” I walked in, with a friend who helped me speak to nurses when I couldn’t find the words, and explained I was having such a hard time that I was worried about my ability to function and stay safe. I spoke with nurses, a doctor and a psychiatrist. They did blood work and interviewed me. They consulted and deemed a bed was necessary. I was admitted to the hospital by medical professionals, not because I decided a break would be nice, but because it was needed for stabilization and safety.

And that hospital stay was lifesaving. Much like an admittance for a serious physical condition would be lifesaving.

So, if you are struggling and worried about your ability to maintain safety, please don’t think of the ER in terms of “optional.” Don’t think, “It would probably help, but I can’t justify taking time out of my life to deal with this.” If someone you love is struggling, please treat it as what it is — a health crisis. If a hospital stay is not actually necessary, don’t worry. They will tell you and discharge you with a safety plan and resources to help you stay ahead of it. If you do need to be admitted, you will be. Either way, you will be better off for having gone. Much like ignoring physical health conditions can be deadly, ignoring suicidal thoughts can be deadly. Going to the ER for a mental health crisis is not weakness. It’s not selfish. And, if you are worried you are at risk of hurting yourself, it’s not optional. Please don’t listen to the minimization, stigma and misinformation that tells you it is.

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.

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Originally published: August 4, 2017
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