Don’t believe what you see on TV or in the movies.
I waited as the elevator ascended at an achingly slow pace. Anxiety filled my body, and I could hardly breathe.
When the doors finally opened, I stepped out, clutching my bag, expecting to see a creepy monochromatic clinical space filled with zombies and screaming people being held down by aggressive staff whose sole job was to control patients like caged animals. Instead, I was welcomed by a wall of bright, hand-drawn inspirational quotes and a handful of warm smiles from staff and other patients. I started to breathe again. Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as I thought it would be.
Every hospital is different, but the one thing I can attest to after several stays at several different institutions is that psychiatric hospitals are nothing like they are portrayed in movies or on television.
There are many problems with the systems, and they are far from perfect. I won’t try to sugarcoat it, but they are certainly not as scary as has become common perception. They’re not a vacation by any means, but they serve their purpose of keeping people safe and pointing them in the right direction without the straitjackets and padded cells.
Here are seven ways psychiatric hospitals today bust the myths of the asylums of yore.
1. Myth: Everyone in the “loony bin” is a drooling zombie.
Reality: When I used to think of mental patients, I envisioned the walking dead. Pale people shuffling around in robes and slippers with their zombie asses hanging out. I imagined staff drugging people into compliance to the point where they were just wandering around aimlessly staring off into space.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth. The patients I saw and got to know were vibrant and full of life. They were playing games and doing puzzles or chatting with loved ones. There were occasionally people around who were having a tough time as well. I saw people crying or even staring off into space from time to time, but because of dissociation or illness — not because they were forced into submission and drugged against their will.
2. Myth: Mental patients are all violent and dangerous.
Reality: People with severe mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than any other people, and they’re actually more than 10 times as likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the general population.
I’ve met really nice people at hospitals, some of whom have had anger issues for sure, but none of them were threatening at all. In fact, many were shy and reserved on the unit. Inevitably some people who enter psychiatric facilities will have a history of violent impulses or actions, but in my experience, the majority of the violent urges were people wanting to harm themselves, not anyone else.
3. Myth: Staff will force pills down your throat.
Reality:I recently had a roommate who didn’t want to take a new medication she was prescribed … so she didn’t. I never once saw anyone forced to take medications or do anything they didn’t want to do. The psychiatrists meet with patients regularly to determine and maintain a path of treatment and the appropriate medication plan. But the doctors make med recommendations because it’s their job; they don’t force pills down anybody’s throat.
4. Myth: ECT is a scary and violent punishment.
Reality: ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is still a commonly used procedure at psychiatric facilities, especially for the treatment of resistant clinical depression and bipolar disorder, but it’s not like the movies. People are not dragged in as punishment, kicking and screaming. They’re not strapped down with huge leather straps, and they don’t lie awake as their bodies go into seizure.
In my experience, I walked into a treatment room, laid down, and was given anesthesia so I wouldn’t feel a thing. And the next thing I knew, I was in the recovery room. It still was a challenging and emotional experience, and I’ve had trouble with my memory ever since, but I wasn’t awake and zapped into submission.
ECT can also be incredibly helpful for some people. Jessica Bishop, a hospital mate of mine who has been hospitalized seven times, says, “ECT has been a lifesaver for me so far. I am able to function and hold down a part-time job. I recommend trying ECT if depression and sadness are overwhelming and too complicated.”
5. Myth: All hospitals are the same, and they keep you locked inside without access to fresh air.
Reality: In the movies, all mental hospitals look and feel exactly the same. In reality, there are many different kinds of hospitals. There are state hospitals, private hospitals, and residential programs. Some are unlocked, while others are locked. Some keep you inside all the time, while others have fenced-in outdoor areas. My last hospitalization offered guided walks with staff twice a day.
6. Myth: You’re stripped of your gadgets and denied contact with the outside world.
Reality: In all but one of the facilities I have been in, I was allowed to hang on to my phone and computer. At one facility, I could not keep any cords in my room, so I had to charge my gadgets one at a time at the nurses’ station, but at least I got to have them. I was allowed to speak with my family and friends as much as I was able, and I even blogged from the inside. I have kept my nonprofit online photography gallery Broken Light Collective going daily through three different hospitalizations. You can always find a way to make contact with the outside world if and when you want to.
7. Myth: You will go home “cured.”
Reality: I really thought I was going to do my time and then joyfully skip through the rotating hospital doors to the outside world in a happy and healthy place. It didn’t work like that for me — or many of the people I met.
What the facilities will do is keep you safe, adjust and/or monitor your meds, teach you coping tools if you are open to it, and then set you up with after care and send you on your way. After care can vary from partial hospitalization programs in which you go home each night, to intensive outpatient programs, to the care of your outside physicians. The hard work continues long after you leave the hospital. The hospital can help but is definitely not a quick fix.
If you do have to be hospitalized at one time or another, your hospitalization will be what you make of it.
If you take care of yourself, follow the rules, go to group meetings, and learn coping skills, you can come out in much better shape than how you entered. If you fight the hospitalization every step of the way, break the rules, and don’t attend your group meetings, you will likely not get too much from the program. I’ve done it both ways and highly recommend the former.
And if you have to go to a hospital, it’s really not the end of the world either. It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
It might not be a great experience. It might be downright shitty. But there are nice patients and staff, even at the crummiest of programs. They’re not all zombies or pill pushers, I swear.
The bottom line is this: If you need to go, go.
If you ever think you need a higher level of care, just do what you need to do to start heading in the right direction. Don’t let your ideas about asylums from movies and television get in the way of your healing journey. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. You deserve the chance to heal and move forward in a productive, meaningful, and hopefully happy way.
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