The truth about friendships made in psychiatric hospital

Whilst I was waiting for an inpatient bed in August 2015, a friend who had known other people admitted to CAMHS psychiatric units told me that I would meet ‘best friends for life’ within the clinical walls of the ward. I’m not sure whether she was projecting what she has seen in films such as Girl, Interrupted or simply had a very lucky friend, but her perception of peer life in a unit was completely different to my own experience.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t make good friends during my time on different wards, because I did. To those, I love you so, so much. My heart was touched by many people and I hope I am able to stay in contact with the beautiful friends I made. However, relationships on the ward were far from perfect.

People are really ill. And so are you.

When I first got admitted, I didn’t talk to anyone properly for a good few weeks. I was so ravelled up in my own illness that I felt completely cut off from the other young people, and from staff. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to be there. I was going through things that no child should have to go to. And if I’m honest, I was immediately triggered by the other patients. When you’re really unwell, you’re vulnerable, and the smallest things can set you off. It’s an intense environment.

People are unwell in different ways and might not understand your illness.

I was in a CAMHS unit for severe depression and emerging emotionally unstable personality disorder. Some people were there for the same things, but were not necessarily presenting in the same ways as me. Other people were there for completely different illnesses. I remember crying because a patient on one ward didn’t understand self-harm and started screaming at me to slit my wrists properly. He was also very ill in his own way, but it still really upset me.

High observations make it impossible to have private conversations.

On the PICU ward, I was on 1:1 observations for about half of the time I was there. Even when I was down the ‘less acute’ side of the ward, there was always at least one of us on 1:1. Staff members were always there, and always involved in our conversations. Whispering was not allowed. Physical contact was not allowed. Talking about mental illness, incidents or anything mildly related was not allowed. Discussing other patients was not allowed. Most of my conversations on the ward were pretty mundane. Conversations would get out of hand and staff would intervene and separate patients.

People get moved and you have no way of finding out where, or getting into contact with them. 

It was heartbreaking how quickly another patient, a friend, could get transferred to another hospital. Sometimes we would wake up in the morning to someone gone, and a new patient here. I tried to get in contact with people who had been on my ward by writing letters to their name and our ward in the hope that the office would forward them, but some of them I have never managed to get back into contact with. It’s shit because you spend so much time getting to know and loving someone, and their illness gets them taken away.

In a confined space, arguments are bound to happen. 

It seems pretty trivial looking back at the things that kicked off arguments. A disagreement about the TV channel, the taking of the final spare dessert, the borrowing of someone else’s pens, a slight comment, and everything would kick off. On multiple occasions the police were actually called to my PICU ward to help staff break up fights which had very quickly escalated. Some patients had to be permanently separated from each other for safety and had to be taken to another room whenever these patients had to come through. However, when you’re stuck in these few rooms where you can’t escape anyone properly and everything is so intense, it doesn’t seem so trivial.

Sometimes, the ‘right’ thing can seem like a betrayal. 

On the ward, people were constantly trying to hurt themselves and whilst staff would sometimes be oblivious, patients were pretty aware to what everyone else was doing and were often the ones pointing things out. There were times when other patients would ‘tell on me’, saying they had noticed that I was concealing objects or that I had new self-harm marks, and I would get really, really angry when I was then confronted. It felt like it was not their place. But then, there were other times when patients had confessed that they had certain contraband objects, or someone didn’t come back to the lounge when they said they would, and that person could have become seriously injured if we hadn’t told staff to go and check up on them. I might have been pissed off at the time, but looking back I’m grateful we had each other’s back.

It’s heartbreaking seeing other people hurting. 

It’s difficult. It’s really difficult. One day you’re fine, the next day you’re not. It’s the same with everyone. Constant incidents from all patients were difficult for everyone, especially as a set of incidents from one patient could then kick off incidents from one another. I could be playing Bananagrams with someone, they say they’re going to the bathroom and 15 minutes later the alarms are ringing, staff are shouting, and an ambulance is being called. It breaks your heart.

At the end of the day, you’re in hospital for you. You’re getting better for you. 

I am so grateful for the beautiful people who I met during my long-term admission, but I didn’t go into hospital to make friends, and I realised as I went on that the more I focussed on myself, the better I got. It’s easy to get dragged into the constant games and triggering cycles of the ward, but it only makes things worse. I had to remember that there was a whole world out there, and had to remember which life I was choosing – the life stuck in the white washed walls of hospital, or the freedom of community life.

Alpha Hospital Sheffield




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