9 Things I Learned in the Mental Hospital

9 Things I learned in the mental hospital - Cassandrastout.comAfter the birth of my son eleven years ago, I suffered a postpartum psychotic breakdown and committed myself to a mental hospital. I later wrote a book detailing the experience, and how I reacted at the time. I learned many things during my five-day stay, and I’d like to share some of them with you today. Here are 9 things I learned at the psych ward:

  1. Anger is common. The most surprising lesson I learned during my stay at the mental hospital was that anger is shockingly common for patients at first. While there, the doctors seem to be your enemies who want to keep you there. It’s not true. Your doctors want to help you exit the facility successfully. Couple the us vs. them mentality with emotional and mental distress, and it’s not suprising that patients tend to respond with anger. But the heightened emotion tends to dissipate over the length of the stay, as the medication starts working.
  2. Inpatient treatment is a stopgap. A stay in a mental hospital is similar to a stay in the physical hospital for surgery: you don’t fully recover while you’re there. A mental break or depressive episode can’t be solved in a day, no matter how good the meds are.
  3. The patients are human. One of my main mistakes during my stay in the mental hospital in the mental hospital was dismissing the other patients as “crazy.” But the patients in a mental hospital are human, with all of humanity’s weaknesses and strengths. Everyone has a story. Everyone is suffering more than you know. I learned that I shouldn’t dehumanize or dismiss people because they’re suffering from mental illnesses–including myself.
  4. The staff is human, too. Learning that the patients were human was hard, but what was even harder was recognizing that the staff were human, too. At first, I believed the doctors and nurses were out to get me. But the staff are all individuals, and human. Some of them are kind and compassionate, while others are just working a shift. I learned to accept the flaws and foibles of all the nurses and psychiatrists, and that made the stay more bearable.
  5. Boredom reigns supreme. After my anger diminished, I was bored out of my skull. I was manic and depressed–suffering from a mixed episode–and restless. The only distractions available were coloring sheets, an ancient, derelict computer, reading old issues of Reader’s Digest, and (gasp!) talking to the other patients. I was far too revved up to engage in coloring or sloooow web surfing or reading, so I talked the ears off of my roommate.
  6. Even while psychotic, I was aware of how people treated me. Even during my psychotic break, I was able to pick up on other people’s moods. I don’t know if that’s just a “me thing,” or if everyone psychotic is that in tune with others, but I knew when people were mistreating me. Be careful when dealing with psychotic people, and treat them with respect.
  7. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. During my stay in the mental hospital, I grew close to my roommate. Too close. I struggled to separate myself from her, even feeling shocked and betrayed that she would vote for a different presidential candidate than I would. I genuinely believed we shared the same thoughts. Learning boundaries was extremely difficult for me, but everyone benefited.
  8. The nurses draw your blood after every meal. The other patients and I were required to sit in a garish, orange chair after every meal and “donate” blood. The nurses drew our blood thrice daily, and it wasn’t until the middle of my stay that I realized they were checking to see if the medication was up to acceptable levels.
  9. If you commit yourself, the doctors cannot legally hold you.  Missing the first few weeks of my infant’s life was devastating. I was desperate to go home and take care of him. It wasn’t until my fifth day that I learned, through a slip of the tongue from a nurse, that, since I committed myself, I was able to go home anytime. I left against medical advice the day after that–potentially a mistake, as my recovery time from my mixed episode was probably longer than it would have been because I didn’t allow the doctors to do their jobs. Thankfully, God was with me and I did, eventually, recover (see lesson #2).9 Things I learned in the mental hospital - CassandraStout,cin

Final Thoughts

My stay in the mental hospital was literally life-saving. I learned more about myself there in six days than I learned in a year’s worth of therapy prior to that. I learned how to manage myself, other people, and my expectations of those people. I managed my surprising anger. I learned that dehumanizing others is easy and a bad habit to slip into. I learned that mental hospitals sound like scary places, but they’re actually really boring. Above all, I learned that I can handle anything life throws at me.

If you’ve dealt with a stay in a mental hospital, what have you learned?

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How to Support a Friend or Loved One Staying in a Psychiatric Hospital

hospital.jpg
A white man reclining in a hospital bed. Credit to flickr.com user JD Harvill. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Sometimes, people just need a little help. There may come a time in your life where a friend or loved one is committed to a mental hospital. When I suffered a postpartum breakdown after the birth of my first child, I committed myself. I was fortunate enough to have the support of a loving, devoted husband, who cared for our newborn and for me while I was struggling with a psychotic manic episode. If you have a friend or loved one spending time in a psychiatric ward, here are some tips on how to best support him or her. If you have a loved one staying in the mental hospital and have other people ready to support him or her but don’t know how, then feel free to print this article out and hand it to them.

The “DON’Ts” of Visiting a Friend or Loved One in a Mental Hospital

  1. Don’t show up unannounced. Make sure you call ahead of time before visiting your friend or loved one in a mental hospitlal. I am sure he or she would love visitors, but being hospitalized is exhausting, and sometimes your friend might not be up for a long visit, or even one at all that day. Also be sure to check when visiting hours actually are.
  2. Don’t be afraid. Mental hospitals may seem like scary places, and it might feel natural to be afraid while you’re there. Patients talk to themselves, are in pain, and are sometimes unpredictable. But your fear contributes to stigma. These patients are normal people who are struggling with mental and/or physical illnesses. The nurses can manage the patients, who are unlikely to be violent. Conquer your fear and don’t worry about visiting your loved one.
  3. Don’t act like you’re going to catch mental illnesses. When I was committed, a fellow patient introduced me to her family. They were very reluctant to shake hands with me, and leaned back from me, presumably so I wouldn’t breathe on them. Their behavior, where they acted as if I were contagious, was insulting and demeaning. You cannot catch crazy. Do not even act as if people in pain are contagious.
  4. Don’t pity the patients. Sympathy is good, empathy is even better, but pity is terrible for anyone suffering from a mental illness. Pity contributes to feelings of low self-worth and depression, and just feels bad. Try to empathize with your friend or loved one stuck in the hospital, but don’t pity or blame him or her for being there.
  5. Don’t abandon your friend as soon as the hospital stay is over. After the hospital stay has concluded, check in with your friend and see if there’s anything he or she needs, be it a cup of coffee or help cleaning the house. Just like a physical illness, mental illnesses take a long time to recover from, especially when a hospital stay is required. Your friend will need you more than ever when they leave the hospital. Continue being a good friend and supporting him or her.

The “DOs” of Visiting a Friend or Loved One in the Mental Hospital

  1. Do visit. One of the best ways to support a friend or loved one who is staying in a psych ward is to show up and be there for them. If you can leave your judgments at the door and offer a compassionate listening ear, you can help buoy him or her and even aid in his or her recovery. Visit as often as you can and the hospital allows.
  2. Do bring something to do or talk about. One of the surprising aspects of the hospital is how boring a stay can be. Patients have very little to do other than color and read old copies of Reader’s Digest, or whatever the hospital has on hand from prior donations. A person staying in the mental ward may face crushing boredom; do your best to alleviate that.
  3. Do write and call. If you can’t visit, dropping your loved one a note or calling him or her up will be very much appreciated. Knowing that people on the outside haven’t forgotten him or her is extremely helpful to a person staying in the psychiatric hospital.
  4. Do offer your loved ones the same respect you give them when they are well. The best way my husband was able to support me was to treat me as if I were the same person he’d always known, and play with me as if I weren’t in a hospital setting. Treat your loved ones with respect; even when psychotic, I was able to tell when other people were mistreating me.
  5. Do acknowledge your loved one’s pain. Validation is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal to relate to your loved one. Rather than responding with something like, “You’ll get over it,” or even “Hang in there,” to their depression, acknowledge that he or she is hurting. Even saying, “That sounds really difficult,” will put your loved one at ease.
  6. Do advocate for your friend or loved one. Ask the person you’re visiting whether they think their treatment team is treating them properly, and keep your eyes open for any problems. The likelihood of your loved one being abused is low, but he or she still might not be able or willing to speak up for himself or herself, even for something as simple as asking for an extra blanket or a clean set of sheets. Keep in mind that your loved one may not be the most reliable narrator; anger at the nurses is common in a mental ward, especially at the beginning of one’s stay, so your loved one might take the chance to rail against their “tormentors.” But don’t hesitate to bring up your loved one’s concerns with the nurses. If the mistreatment is real, you will need to advocate for your loved one and ensure he or she gets proper care.
  7. Do establish boundaries. If you are overwhelmed by your loved one’s negativity, change the subject. Try not to cut the visit short unless he or she becomes too agitated to speak or becomes violent, as some patients might think you’re abandoning them. But healthy boundaries are important when visiting a friend in the mental ward. Take care of yourself and make sure to do something relaxing for yourself as soon as the visit concludes.

Final Thoughts

There are several dos and don’ts when supporting a friend or loved one staying in a mental hospital. Having gone through the experience of committing myself, I can strongly suggest that you visit as often as you can and the patient allows, as that will aid in his or her recovery. The feeling of being forgotten while staying in a psych ward is very real, and is crippling. Try to be in tune with your friend’s needs, and don’t abandon them after the hospital stay is over.

I wish you well.

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How to Survive a Stint in the Mental Hospital

 

 

hospital
A picture of San Juan Regional Medical Center. Credit to flickr.com user teofilo. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

A stay in a mental hospital can be a frightening thought. Some patients may be a danger to themselves or others. People are hospitalized in psychiatric wards for a variety of reasons. Some may suffer from depression. And still others may endure anxiety disorders, mania, or any other number of mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or postpartum psychosis.

But what about you? How do you survive a stint in the mental hospital, if you need one? Let’s dig in.

Deal with Potential Anger

When starting out your stay in a psychiatric ward, you may find yourself angry. If you’ve been involuntarily committed, you may not believe that you deserve to be there. Even if you do believe you deserve to be there, anger is a common emotion to feel when hospitalized, especially in the first few days. The nurses should be aware of this and will prevent violent interactions between patients, but will largely ignore your outbursts otherwise.

Because the nurses are ignoring your potential anger, you will have to handle it yourself. So now that you know you might have some anger to process, how do you deal with it? Here are some steps that can help:

  • When you feel the first stirrings of anger, try breathing deeply through your nose. (For a technique for deep breathing, click here.)
  • Create a calming and positive mantra, and repeat it to yourself. Try something like, “chill,” “relax,” or “take it easy.” Repeat this to yourself until you feel the anger ebb.
  • Wait to express yourself until after the initial rush of adrenaline has passed, and do so in a calm and appropriate manner. Try to be assertive rather than angry.
  • Keep a journal of what makes you feel angry and why, and try to avoid those triggers.
  • Listen to those around you. Practicing good listening skills can help clear up disagreements before they start.
  • If another patient is trying to get your goat, then walk away, and alert the nurses. Disengage as quickly as you can.

Calm acceptance of your stay in the mental hospital will come in time, unless the anger is a deep-rooted issue. Handling conflict properly with other patients and the hospital nurses is very important. If you don’t deal with your anger, you’ll create problems for everyone involved.

Make Friends

In a mental hospital, you will may be bored and lonely. Some wards don’t allow internet access or phone use, so you might be completely cut off from the outside world. One of the best ways to cope with this problem is to make friends with the other patients. Try to be open to starting new friendly relationships with people. It may relieve you of your boredom and even speed your recovery, because having someone to cheer you on is always good. You’re all in this together.

Even though making friends is good, people can become too close. Nurses are instructed to break apart people who grow too chummy. For example, during my own stay in a mental hospital, I made a friend with whom I became quite codependent. Every time she left the room, I wondered if she was abandoning me. My doctors instructed me not to make my emotional health dependent on her.

That is why establishing healthy boundaries with others is so important. If you don’t want to lend out your personal items, then decline politely whenever someone asks. And don’t tolerate abuse from people either. If they don’t stop hurting you when you ask, be it emotional or physical harm, walk away and alert the nurses.

Note: While making friends is advised, starting a romantic relationship is not. Needless to say, a stay in the hospital is emotionally charged. You’re there to stabilize and recover, and you’re not at your best self. Neither is any other patient. You might find yourself in a whirlwind romance, which won’t benefit either of you. Your ultimate goal is to improve and be released, and a romantic attachment may hinder that.

Fall in Line

Psychiatric wards have a lot of rules. You may receive a tour of the hospital explaining what most of these guidelines are. Pay attention to what the nurses and doctors say with regard to your behaviors and treatments. Make sure you know what expectations are placed on you so you can be released, possibly earlier than expected.

In addition to general rules, there are basic steps you can take to get released. Comply with your individual treatment plan. Attend all the therapy and crafting sessions, and take your medication as prescribed. If you disagree with the treatment plan, talk to your doctors. A willingness to discuss things rationally is better than outright refusal.

You might think, like I did, that the doctors are out to get you or that they’re incompetent. You might believe that they want to keep you in the hospital forever, because it pads their bottom line. I can assure you that that’s not the case. They want you to recover. Talking with them will help both you and them.

You won’t recover until you’ve stabilized, which the medication and therapy is intended to help with. Your doctors have years of experience under their belts, treating all manner of mental illnesses and substance abuse problems. They know what they’re doing, and they really do have your best interests at heart. You don’t need to like them, just work with them.

Conquer Boredom

Having your daily routine interrupted by a stay in the hospital will be very difficult. And without the challenges of work or school, you may end up facing extreme boredom. You will have a lot of time to think, and you might not want to get wrapped up in your thoughts. Try constructive ways to fill your time, such as:

  • Exercise. Studies have shown that there are very beneficial effects of working out for your mental health, especially people suffering from bipolar disorder. Ask the nurses if there is an open space where you can get your heart pumping. Jogging in place, doing a few crunches, and trying some pushups for a few minutes is all you really need to do, especially if you’re largely sedentary outside the hospital.
  • Reading. Most psychiatric wards own books and magazines available for the patients. Mine had old copies of Reader’s Digest. If you have friends willing to come visit you, ask them to bring reading materials.
  • Crafting. You will likely be assigned a crafting or skill-learning class. Take notes and learn how to craft the presented item or perfect the taught skill. Why? It might sound stupid, but creating a handprint turkey is better than being bored.
  • Doing crossword puzzles or coloring pages. If possible, ask the nurses to print some of these out for you, or your friends to bring some.

Final Thoughts

A stay in the mental hospital doesn’t have to be a disaster. If you deal with your anger, handle interactions with others appropriately, comply with treatment, and fill your time with constructive activities, you can ensure that you’ll make the best of your stay.

Good luck!

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How Privilege Affects Mental Healthcare

Like many people who celebrate Thanksgiving, I’m taking a hard look at what I should be grateful for. When I was young, my family was largely feast or famine. We survived multiple job losses, costly illnesses, and bankruptcies. In my teens, all seven of us lived in a trailer no bigger than 750 sq. ft. And I was always hungry.

Now, I am steeped in obscene amounts of privilege. I am white, and I hold two college degrees. Among other things, this means I have an easier time getting and taking medication. My nursing and Latin classes specifically enable me to understand medical terminology and the effects of medications on my body and brain. I am a very insistent advocate for my health.

I am also married to a partner with a steady, middle-class job, which means my anxiety about ending up homeless or going hungry now is largely irrational. We’ve only been married for five years, but he not only held my hand when I committed myself, but he puts up with my mood episodes today. We could still get divorced, as have so many others with bipolar. But we haven’t yet. We are very awkward when people ask about our married life, because we usually exist in a different bubble than they do.

Insurance Card
Credit to flickr photographer mtsofan. Used with permission.

My partner’s job has insurance. I can—and will—write a post on this benefit alone, because without it, I wouldn’t be writing this today. I’d be dead. My hospitalization four years ago cost $6638.61—and was completely covered. I was flabbergasted. We were newlyweds at the time, and would have been put into debt. Due to growing up having Medicaid or sometimes nothing at all, the feeling is still surreal.

Speaking of jobs, I am lucky enough to be self-employed while writing my book, which means I can have as many panic attacks as I need to have without getting fired.

I’ve been in therapy for years. I’ve also changed psychiatrists five times until I found one I liked. This process of doctor-finding is actually quite common, but we could afford the doctor’s visits, the pills, and the frequent blood draws to check for liver or thyroid damage, which means I was willing to invest in my health. And my nightly cocktail of medication—found through years of trial and error—actually works. There are side effects, of course, but as I understand it, they could be significantly worse.

And finally, I was able to keep my infant despite someone threatening to report me to Child Protective Services during my psychotic break.

Is my mental illness severe? Of course. But I am lucky, to an unrealistic extent. If I wasn’t covered by my partner’s insurance, I would have had go to work immediately after my breakdown to cover costs. If I hadn’t married him when I did, I would be living with my parents, homeless, or dead—and likely one of the latter. There are so many ifs, which terrifies me.

Mental stability—which should be a basic human right—is achieved only by those who can afford it.

Homeless and cold.
Credit to flickr photographer Ed Yourdon. Used with permission.

A disproportionate amount of the homeless are returning veterans, the mentally ill, or both. Would that more shelters could provide a secure environment and treatment for any atypical brain chemistries or traumas that they may have! I would happily part with my tax dollars to ensure that more people with schizophrenia have a chance to sleep in a warm bed rather than under a bridge. Ideally, they’d also have help moving on to more permanent housing and work.

The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas warm my heart, but not just because I’m looking forward to spending time with friends and family. The generous outpouring of help around this time is mind-boggling. But I feel I have a responsibility to use my privilege year-round to help others who are less fortunate. First, I’ll keep in mind how much I have.

What struggles have you survived? And what privileges may have helped you through them?

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