I was recently reminiscing about the many times over the past few years that I have visited my local psychiatric hospital in a state of crisis or emergency. My relationship with the hospital started when I was in the midst of a severe episode of depression over three years ago, a few months before I received my diagnosis of bipolar disorder in June 2014. I want to clarify, first and foremost, that I mostly hold very positive feelings towards this specific hospital for their hard work in addressing mental health in my city and country. They are doing a lot to improve access to care and to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness. However, I just wanted to share certain experiences that I feel might be universal to any mental hospital, based on my research and after learning from other people with mental illness. Often, people don’t know what to expect when they are thinking about going to a psychiatric hospital. They avoid going because they are overwhelmed or frightened. These personal insights into what has been like for me might help paint a picture of what you can expect. Of course, a person’s experience might be different based on a variety of intersecting factors such as race, sexuality, gender identity and more. However, I think that these lessons can help everyone in some capacity.
1. You Might Feel Like You Are Being Treated Like A Criminal
Most mental hospitals will search you and your belongings. I have been patted down and searched with a metal-detecting wand. They will also take your belongings into their position until you leave the building if you have any materials that they deem dangerous. This includes sharp objects, as well as long wires like phone chargers. I completely understand why hospitals do this, but the experience is still hardly pleasant even when equipped with this knowledge. Additionally, once you are in the waiting room, you can’t necessarily just walk off and leave. You need permission from a psychiatrist. This can definitely make you more anxious if you have a history of anxiety. At times, I felt a bit trapped, to be honest. I get that they want to make sure you will be safe enough before you leave. It just doesn’t feel great. What works for me in dealing with this lack of control is to focus on convincing myself that I am prioritizing my health and that I made the right decision in seeking help. By doing so, I am allowing myself to remember what’s important and to remember that I need to comply with hospital rules so that they can help me as best they can.
2. It Could, and Will Most Likely, Be Triggering
For most people, hospitals are not their favourite place. We aren’t typically excited to go to the hospital since as a patient, that usually means something is wrong. And as much as the administration tries, a hospital isn’t a positive environment. Most people who are in a hospital have serious health issues and need a lot of care and attention. So you can imagine that it would be similar for a specialized psychiatric hospital. A lot of the people in the hospital are experiencing severe symptoms of their mental illnesses. They are typically in an acute crisis. So it can definitely be scary for someone to enter into that environment. When I’ve been at the hospital as a patient, I’ve been at my most vulnerable. It can be overwhelming to be surrounded by people who are screaming, behaving erratically or possibly acting violently. Sometimes, there are people in handcuffs. I’m not saying that everyone in crisis acts this way, but this behaviour has definitely been a hallmark of many of my visits. I also want to reiterate that people with “difficult” behaviour definitely do not deserve to be stigmatized, criminalized or discriminated against for their symptoms. However, for a patient who is not a trained mental health professional, it can definitely be scary to deal with this. This is why the doctors will often send you home to get care as an outpatient if they believe that you will not harm yourself or others, and if you have the right support at home. However, PLEASE do not let this alarm you or scare you away from visiting. There are so many benefits to going to the hospital that outweighs these issues. I prepare myself to handle these potential incidents by reminding myself that I will be taking significant steps in handling my bipolar disorder by visiting the hospital.
3. You Will Have to Talk A Lot
If you want to visit the emergency room in a psychiatric hospital, you should be prepared that you will need to talk a lot and share intimate details about your mental health history. It can be an intense and draining experience. Depending on the hospital, you might need to speak to 2-4 health professionals. This could include an intake/triage nurse, medical students, residents, and psychiatrists. In these conversations, you will likely have to repeat information that you shared in the previous discussion. You will be asked about everything from self-harm and suicide attempts to disclosing whether you have had psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices or seeing visual hallucinations. Some of the conversations I have had lasted for almost an hour. Depending on the person you are speaking to, they might be very clinical and formal while spending much of their time distinctly NOT looking at you but instead focusing on their computer or pad of paper. They might also be dismissive, patronizing or make inappropriate jokes. However, many mental health professionals are very sympathetic, supportive and encouraging when they engage you in conversation. They have a lot of experience and knowledge about most mental illnesses, so they understand what you’ve been going through and can help you identify how you are feeling. It is totally worth it to put in the emotional labour to share your story in these settings because you might actually receive the care you have been seeking for too long.
4. You Might Be Disappointed in the Results
It’s interesting because, during most of my visits to the emergency room at the psychiatric hospital, I have specifically been asked what I am hoping to get out of the visit. For me, I typically always have the same reason for visiting. It is because the symptoms of my mental illness are so severe that they are unbearable and I cannot handle it anymore. I usually want to be admitted to the hospital because I want to escape from my life and I want someone to give me a “silver bullet” solution to my problems. So most times, I am disappointed when the psychiatrist tells me that I will not be admitted and I will be sent home. And I feel that most people might be disappointed because they do not know what to expect from the hospital and what the hospital can do for them. Unfortunately, there is just not enough room for everyone in crisis, so they will typically only admit people who are a danger to themselves or others. However, in my experience, they will also typically direct you to resources that can help. These resources and solutions might take some time to work, but as I am starting to learn, there is definitely no quick-fix to mental illness. Which leads me to….
5. You Might Finally Get Connected to the Right Resources
I have learned that there are definitely not enough mental health resources in my community and in many communities around the world. There ARE many amazing and helpful initiatives and programs in hospitals and community health centres, especially across my own province of Ontario, Canada. However, it is often incredibly difficult to access them, either because they aren’t highly visible or because there are extremely long wait lists. Many family doctors do not receive adequate training around mental illness and many are not even comfortable prescribing medications for mental illness. They usually provide referrals to psychiatrists and other specialists, but people can wait for months, even years before they are seen. This is why it usually feels like a never-ending battle to treat your mental health. And why people are often only really helped in a crisis situation. The fact of the matter is that I only started getting proper, consistent care for my mental illness when I visited the hospital’s emergency room. They directed me to a crisis clinic where I was given an appointment in less than a week’s time. So if you are feeling symptoms of depression, please visit. You don’t have to be suicidal – if these symptoms are impacting your daily life, it’s time to get help.
What do you think? Have you been to a psychiatric hospital emergency room? Or just any hospital’s emergency room for a mental illness-related reason? If you are comfortable, please share with me below in the comments!