Having been known to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) for years before I was admitted for the first time, I was fed a lot of absolute bullsh*t by professionals, other people my age, and the internet, about what a psychiatric ward was ‘really’ like. I’m not sure how much was exaggeration, how much was trying to scare me, or how much was just outdated or irrelevant information. But what I encountered was nothing like I had been told to expect, or what I had been so scared of ending up in. Going into hospital has been terrifying, but completely surprising.
Staff are busy. Like, all the time. If you’re expecting an admission to be a constant 1:1 session, then you’re wrong. Even on a PICU ward there might only be one staff member on top of the staff on ‘observations’. You might only see the consultant once a week, twice if you’re lucky. For ’round the clock care’, you spend a lot of time alone. Unless you are on observations, and then it’s the complete opposite. You literally cannot get away from the person on your observations. They’re following you around, watching what you’re doing like a hawk. And believe me it’s tiring to sit there trying to keep yourself distracted when a HCA is butting in every few minutes with ‘Wow! You’re so talented’ ‘Why don’t you show me more of what you’ve done?’ when you’re barely keeping the colours between the lines. It’s even more hideous when you’re being ‘observed’ in the bathroom, or when you’re trying to explain to a male HCA why you need to swap onto a female so that you can ask her for a freaking sanitary towel without being humiliated.
Some patients are friendlier than others. Every time I’ve gone onto a new ward, I’ve felt like the odd one out. Everybody else already knows each other. There are usually little groups of people who ‘hang out’, even on the adult wards. People do look you up and down when you first walk in. Everyone wants to know what’s up with you, how you wound up here. Other patients take guesses for what you’re in for. Usually my self-harm is a complete give away. So, it can also be really, really lonely. And even when you do ‘make friends’, you still feel completely alone. You’re rarely able to talk to another patient without a staff member also being present. You’re not really allowed to talk about anything ‘triggering’ or ‘upsetting’ (which in a psychiatric ward is pretty much anything), but there’s not really much else that anyone has in common. You can’t have physical contact with anyone, you can’t whisper. But you still wake up in the middle of the night to the alarms ringing and your friends screaming for staff to ‘get off me and just let me die’ and have to roll over and go back to sleep because it happens almost every night, there’s nothing you can do, and sometimes that person screaming and struggling is you.
Avoid being on a section. OK, this sounds really obvious, but hear me out. I’ve been admitted to hospital when I wasn’t on a section, but I was never explained to the section process. I was never told about being on a section or why I would need to be on a section, or even that I was having an assessment for a section until I was sat in front of the same two Doctors and a social worker I had spoken to casually before and told that I was being detained under the Mental Health Act. The reason why I was detained was because I had asked a Nurse if I could leave. Or rather, I had said that I was going to leave because nothing was keeping me here. It’s just not a good idea to tell anyone you want to leave or insist on leaving. You can talk to your Doctor about why you feel like being inpatient isn’t helpful, but if you go around threatening to walk out, they’re going to section your sorry ass faster than you can get out the air lock.
Bring your essentials. Roll on deodorant. A comfort blanket. A teddy. A few books that you really want to read and are going to be easy to read, and aren’t just for your English course. Paper. Pens. Lots of pyjamas and joggers. Ear plugs. Pictures of your family and friends. Stress toys. Slippers. Shower gel and shampoo. A towel from home. Your hairbrush. Make up and a nice outfit for when you’re allowed on leave. A list of important contact numbers in case you’re not allowed to use your own phone.
You’re going to see some weird shit, but psychiatric wards are mostly just full of very sad, lost people. I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t been scared or shocked by other patients on the psychiatric wards that I’ve been on. I’ve seen some really, really horrible things and I have been frightened by other patients. I’ve seen some things happen that don’t seem harmful to them or to anyone else, but are just downright weird and socially unacceptable. But what I’ve learnt is that these people aren’t to blame for the way that their illnesses are manifested. They’ve been through some horrible, horrible things, things that people in the community might not even be able to imagine going through. And they’re still alive, still fighting. On the ward we’re all sort of sad and broken in our own ways, but mental illness doesn’t affect people in one same way. There are many ways that people can be affected.
Staff members can be so, so rude. There have been staff members I’ve been looked after by and treated by who have made me wonder ‘Why the fuck have you got a job in the mental health sector if you are absolutely void of compassion for the mentally ill?’. It must be such a stressful job, but sometimes staff would just snap at me, or at other people, and it would really upset me. The environment is so intense in there that little things can be blown up, and bigger things make the whole situation seem unbearable. I remember one time I had been given kitchen access on the ward, so I was able to toast my bagels at night (it’s the small things). However, the Nurse on one night shift wasn’t aware of this so when she saw me outside the kitchen door she absolutely screamed at me and told me to ‘get lost’. Slightly unnecessary. Other times I would just watch staff members clearly taunting distressed patients, or doing absolute fuck all when a patient was clearly upset and needing help.
It’s not forever, and you’ll get there in the end. I was six months into my first admission when the thought first came to me that I could never get out of hospital. I was making no progress, still on 1:1, and was being referred for a long-term (years) stay at a specialist unit. I just felt so hopeless and out of control. I felt like I was never, ever going to be free, that I was either going to live the rest of my life in the clinical walls of a psychiatric unit, or die trying to free myself one way or the other. Other patients on the ward felt the same. But I came to realise that this mentality wasn’t helping me no matter what happened. Every time I slipped I pulled myself up to my feet and tried again. It took me a long time, and it’s still something I’m working on now in the community, but I got there.
I’m not ashamed of my time spent in psychiatric hospitals. I’m not the same person I was then but that Rosie has made me the strong, resilient and overall happy individual that I am now, and her hard work within the walls of a unit has meant that I now have a wonderful life. I still have bad depression days, but I am really, really, quite free. I just hope that I can use my experiences to help other people who are still going through shit and can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.