What It’s Really Like Inside a Psychiatric Ward

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I‘d never felt claustrophobic until those triple-locked doors slammed shut. For the first time in my life, my movement was restricted. My freedom was curtailed, and I had to abide by someone else’s schedule.

This wasn’t prison, although it felt like it. This was a mental hospital — my new home.

The most desperate year

By 2010, I’d been depressed for three years without respite. I’d been medically retired from my job as a police officer due to PTSD. My identity, hopes, dreams, and friends had been wrenched from me, and I was falling into the abyss. I had no focus, and every breath hurt.

I’d thought about suicide every day, but until 2010, it was a daydream. In 2010, I felt a serious pull to take action. I’d worked out how, when, and where.

My final straw came when I went to Scotland on our annual family vacation. My dad worked himself to death all year for this two-week break. He loved the isolation and the long walks. Usually, we would mess around in a nearby river and play games in the garden. At night, I’d beat him at golf on the PlayStation.

2010 was different. The depressive weight that was crushing my chest 24/7 felt even heavier. I was in a place I knew I was supposed to love, with so many fond memories, yet I felt no joy. There are some photos of me lying on the sofa, which my dad took (he liked to take pictures unannounced for a laugh). The pain is etched on my face.

My family saw how much pain I was in, and they decided to cut the vacation short to get me home and see my psychiatrist. When I heard this, I hugged my dad, and he stifled tears. He could feel my pain.

Due to ill health, that was my dad’s last vacation. However you dress it up, I ruined it for him. The guilt is powerful to this day.

The hospital of last resort

I had run out of options. Medication wasn’t working, and I was too psychotic for therapy. I’d ruined my dad’s vacation, and I was planning my suicide every day.

I was being visited by the Crisis Intervention Team every day. I finally admitted to them my suicidal plans. They said I needed to go to hospital as an inpatient. I went voluntarily so that they didn’t have to section me under the Mental Health Act.

Saying goodbye to my family was crushing. I told my partner they thought I’d be gone for at least several weeks. She broke down crying. As I walked into the living room, my dad immediately began crying, and we embraced. My mum then drove me on the most terrifying journey of my life.

I’d left behind all the love I had in the world for the unknown. All my security surrendered because I couldn’t live like this a moment longer.

My mum stayed with me while a nurse showed me around the hospital. It didn’t take long — my room, a TV room, and a kitchen. I was allowed to keep my phone, but not the charger to keep it running.

We said goodbye, and three double-locked doors closed behind her. With no phone, I’d never felt as alone. The claustrophobia was overpowering. There was no outside space, so we were allowed to pace up and down the corridor or watch TV. I started to realize I’d made a big mistake.

If you stay in a mental hospital, you’d better like TV

Sometimes I see TikToks from angsty teens who treat mental hospitals like a second home. They show these bright and breezy environments with friendly staff and productive activities. They stop wanting to hurt themselves because they’ve made a bowl and spoon that day. Everyone comments on their bravery, and they get thousands of likes.

My experience was nothing like that.

The routine here was simple. At 6 am, the nurses wake you and kick you out of your room. You aren’t allowed back there until 11 pm.

The patients are then all assembled in the “TV room.” A nurse watches over them. It’s the most straightforward job because we are all in one place. The other nurses are behind the scenes, stuffing their faces with cookies. The one nurse watching us rotates throughout the day.

In the TV room, we can sleep as much as we like or watch TV. That’s it — that’s the extent of our activities in this vile place. We can’t sleep in bed because that would be too much work for the nurses to watch us.

The TV was constantly on MTV. I grew to hate The Wanted singing, “How do you get up from an all-time low?” I wish they’d told me the answer.

At 11 pm, they herded us all off to bed. I first noticed the thin plastic mattresses were the same as those I had given prisoners. I already felt like I was in prison. Everything had reversed.

The nurse’s station was down the corridor from my room. The doors had to be left unlocked so anyone could walk in anywhere. I struggled to sleep from the noise of the nurses laughing, shouting, and joking.

They were a bunch of insensitive pigs.

I had no idea what the other patients were like, so I hardly slept in case one came through my unlocked door.

Then, at 6 am, they forced us back into the TV room to repeat the sorry process. The only variation was whether I wanted tuna or beans on my rock-hard jacket potato.

From the frequent fliers to the depths of despair

Most of the patients were frequent fliers. They seemed content to go there for a few days and get discharged, only to repeat the pointless process.

Loving mental hospitals might be a mental illness in its own right.

Yet, among the people who liked tuna and hard potatoes were some tragic cases.

One woman was so overwhelmed by postpartum depression that she curled up in a ball in the TV room. She slept until the nurses allowed her back to bed. Her husband visited often, but she shunned him. She couldn’t bear to be near him. She blamed him for her condition, which I can understand. The most humane thing would have been for the nurses to let her sleep in her bed instead of on a plastic chair.

In mental hospitals, convenience for the staff takes precedence over humanity.

Another patient became progressively agitated at the inability to go anywhere. His only crime was being ill. The situation climaxed when he snapped and started struggling with the windows. The nurses restrained him until he ran out of energy. I don’t know what happened to him, but I imagine he realized no help was available. We were just killing time in the waiting room of the wretched.

The great escape

I lasted a few days before I had to plan how to get out of this nightmare. It turns out the solution was easy because no one cared anyway. I finally got to see a psychiatrist after three days. I told him I felt fine now. The nurse who showed me around objected and asked how I had gone from suicidal to fine in such a short time. But the psychiatrist didn’t care. He needed the bed, so he discharged me.

In a way, the hospital had made me feel better. It had shown me a vision of hell that was going to become my future if I didn’t take drastic action. Getting out of there started my road to recovery. I had everything I needed with my family. Professionals were, and have always been, useless in helping me.

Some people need treatment as inpatients, especially if they’re a danger to others. However, that treatment has to consist of more than sitting in front of MTV for 17 hours a day. It must be more humane than ruining sleep and doing the bare minimum.

Mental health services in the UK — and I suspect elsewhere — have always been in crisis. I don’t know the solution, but humanity from the professionals responsible for helping us would be a good start.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. Wow! How lucky you were to have a loving, understanding family. This sounds like (yes) one of the lower regions of hell and certainly reminds me of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”! It seems that you haven’t become locked into the other hell of toxic psychotropic drugs which so many become dependent on for life! The problem with the professionals is that they come from a scientific background that has no room for the crises of the Soul…”science” will never understand this. What is needed is the compassion of therapists who simply listen and are willing to stay connected for as long as the “patient” is in need. (You actually sound a lot “saner” than so many “professionals” around these days!)

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  2. This insightful, chilling essay is something everyone should read. The author makes the point patients are the only ones suffering in a broken mental health system. Nurses and staffers who may have begun work as hopeful people wanting to help others fall in line, succumbing to the indifference and cynicism veteran workers may ooze. Unfavorable odds await those at either end of a psych ward’s revolving door.

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        • True, and when your own bedroom is no longer a safe place because you can be jumped by gun wielding thugs for disagreeing with someone, and not wishing to speak with A psychologist (not MY psychologist) at $200 a session, safety becomes a thing of the past.

          Perhaps conversations about the football with a psych are that important they need this power to overcome resistance to their ‘treatments’? I had nothing else to share (she did explore links to the outlaw motorcycle gang members she ‘counselled’ on occasions, no doubt arranging other kidnappings for a fee), other than access to my bank account once the Insurance paid the compensation for the damage which had been done to me. And I’ve no doubt that would have been removed by the psychiatrist husband with electricity to the head in no time.

          Knowing that these things are being done gives significant insight into the abject failures of these ‘professionals’. Others seem to prefer the justification of “they wouldn’t do that” rather than examine the facts.

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  3. In life, we are all homeless today. We need space in this society. We need even more space on the psychiatric ward. We need space in our minds too. Space is freedom. It means no mind, no self. There is no self when you see an immense spectacle of nature, or if you’re lost in playing the violin, or if you’re lost in the passion of sex, or if you lose yourself period, if thought ends. Then there is bliss. This is the bliss of death, but the death of thought is no real death. It is the death of the illusion of you. Then there is freedom, then there is bliss.

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  4. In Australia Police Officers are used by Mental Health Services to induce “acute stress reactions” in people they wish to speak with, and who might refuse their ‘help’

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZ9UQKBUrsg&t=14s

    You might recognise the ‘technique’ Leon? If you combine this with their ability to ‘spike’ citizens with date rape drugs before the work is completed, and then complete the prescription making the drugs their “regular medications” after the fact? Oh wait, these people don’t even need to be “patients”, the mental health services just tell police that so they can get access to their bedrooms and question them against their will. So they just tell Police they require assistance with a violent psychotic drug abusing wife beater and let nature take it’s course. None of it needs to be true, just verbal it on the Forms and no one will question the forged document because it’s being encouraged by the State. They even send Police who aren’t good at verballing for Creative Writing classes here.

    Problem being that our Police are so under resourced that they don’t have a copy of the Criminal Code and therefore trying to complain will get you a police referral back to the people your trying to report? And we watch as the cancer of corruption spreads like wildfire….. having the documented proof makes you a target for police.

    I won’t tell you what they tried to do to me in the Emergency Dept as a result of my complaint, i’ve already had one police officer tell me “it might be best I don’t know about that”. Involuntarily euthansing people and then “editing” the legal narrative is best done in the dark with as few eyes as possible.

    And it only really became problem when police didn’t get the documents back from me, and the TWO sets could be compared and contrasted, and then look at the criminal negligence of the Chief Psychiatrist in the letter my legal representatives forged to cover up for the State.

    I have often pondered what it must be like to be a police officer and assisting in the fuking destruction of someone you know was tortured and kidnapped, but doctor is asking that you ensure no action is taken while they sort the matter out. Problem being that request to obstruct/pervert needed to be flagged on the system. But, no Criminal Code in the Police Station so i guess nothing can be done.

    I, like you, didn’t get to spend much time in the locked ward. It didn’t take long to figure out that I had no information worth torturing me for. Disagreeing with my wife isn’t really an illness apparently, and so not wishing to discuss that isn’t either. 7 hours of interrogation whilst drugged without my knowledge, not informed and denied access to legal, family, or my doctor. Glad I don’t live in China huh? A Professor said to me “these things tend to get out of hand”….. no shit Sherlock.

    I can appreciate your feelings about how in a bizarre kind of way the experience healed you. I often wonder if it might have been better if they had waited until the lethal injection was administered in the E.D. before interrupting proceedings. The people who have been tortured by the State really don’t tend to recover well …..I am a testament to that. Though I think I might have recovered from the initial torture, it was the gaslighting and deliberate fuking destruction of my sanity and family that caused the long term damage. Just doing their jobs I guess….. though I note that this is not an excuse when it comes to acts of torture….. “no superior authority”

    It can’t be an easy job though. The police who roughed me up to force me to talk to the ‘mental health professional’ were acting in good faith when they jumped in and tortured me too. They were of the belief I was an “Outpatient” ….. and they made it look that way to other hospital staff when they delivered me to the locked ward for the AMHP…. it now looked like Police had requested assistance from the AMHP. Imagine how easy that makes arbitrary detentions and torture?

    I digress. Glad you got ‘helped’ by these people, because my life, career, family, home and sanity were all destroyed by them, and police provided material assistance in that regard. The mock execution, and threats to assault my grandchildren I realise are ‘coercive measures’ (Our Commissioner calls threats to have people pack raped for not wearing a bicycle helmet a “poor choice of words”. Video of the threat on Youtube) and do not meet the standard of torture, but it sure as hell feels like it when these people are ‘just doing their jobs’.

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  5. Two things I find interesting in regards the Police response to my complaints (s)

    The first relates to the events in the Emergency Dept. Had I been listened to, and I do believe I was though not by police, I could have taken them through the events on the video and shown them how the morphine was harvested for the lethal cocktail which was intended for me. A fairly simple sleight of hand, though I think that the fact the set up was rudely interrupted means that ‘they’ didn’t actually want to know because ….. well, it’s kind of ugly really.

    ‘They’ did try and approach me about getting my consent when the plot was exposed to my wifes Professor friend, but by that time I was a little uncooperative with these good medical people…. so they had to run with it minus my consent. Not an issue for these people who do what they want anyway. Consent means very little to them. And now we know what Police do about someone walking in to a Police station with proof of being ‘spiked’ with date rape drugs (have a doctor write a script for it post hoc) why would they be worried about someone’s right to know there was someone trying to kill them, but that they were on to it….. I mean they had already gone to the trouble of forgi g evidence to falsely make them an “Outpatient”, so simply utter with those forgeries. As ‘patients’ don’t have any rights ….. at all.

    Which brings me to my second point,

    Article 15of the Convention against the use of Torture

    Each State Party shall ensure that any statement which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings, except against a person accused of torture as evidence that the statement was made.

    I realise that the hospital was hiding the fact they had documents which clearly show I was tortured. But they continued to use the documents which had been forged to defend their position that I had been detained lawfully…… the letter of response from the Chief Psychiatrist puts the Form 1 forward as that defense, AND makes the claim that my detailed destruction of the ‘verbal’ was nothing more than me offering “justifiable explanations” of the matters listed. Hardly. I was pointing out that I didn’t believe that the AMHP could either travel through time and space to make observations, nor could he read minds.

    So the documents was forged as a result of me being tortured, and then that document used to maintain that the referral was lawful? And the Article says the State shall ENSURE that such a document is not used for any other purpose….. This document was used to slander me all over town. I went from being the victim of domestic violence to being a violent psychotic dug abusing wife beater as a result of that document, and it took 7 hours of interrogation whilst intoxicated without my knowledge to establish that this wasn’t the case.

    So the use of this particular document to defend the criminal offending of the AMHP is a violation of the Conventionm every single time they have used it to ensure that an investigation did not occur…… which means they didn’t need to do anything about Doc trying to snuff me with the cocktail he mixed up in the ED.

    Wow. And i’ve said before…. it’s in the eyes. Particularly when police are lying to you and they know you know they are lying…… haven’t got a copy of the Criminal Code in a large Metro station? Going to arrest you for having documents showing you had been ‘spiked’ with date rape drugs? Conspire to pervert the course of justice is only a crime if it is a matter before the courts? No worries for a Doctor you never met to write prescriptions for drugs administered without your knowldege hours before he even knew you existed? Dr doesn’t bother asking about your medication regimen because he doesn’t want to hear the answer and document it (that is that benzos are NOT your “regular medications”, and he knows your under the influence to enable the torture)?

    Mind you I did refuse the ‘help’ they were offering with my marriage. I can hear the alarm bells going off in the hospital……. aa damsel is in distress, something needs to be done and immediately. Put that aboriginal woman being beaten half to death by her husband on the back burner, we have one who is having trouble assaulting her husband. He even raised his foot to stop her plunging a knife into his heart (and yes, she admitted this to the two police and three mental health workers who tortured and kidnapped me. They all looked at one another and realised but…. they’d already crossed the river into torturing me and it was getting worse with every question the AMHP asked…. who’s his doctor again? woops next question before police figure they’ve been stooged…..)

    So I guess they knew about the Doc in the E.D. doing a few, but didn’t want to appear to know because it must have been quite convenient for them to have a few done….. just doing them because someone complains about being tortured seems a bit much….. they’ve got cover ups and criminal negligence for that. And the Premier uttering with documents known to have been produced by acts of torture (keep in mind my wife is close friends with his sister, and she would call my wife at least weekly. Don’t suppose the criminals …. I mean medical people, knew how well connected she was)

    Not that the police committing the offences against me and the community give a damn, they know the State has got their back (and people with the stomach to resolve any issues they might have). Though it does set them up for problems down the line with PTSD and quite possibly explains the exodus from the service.

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  6. Hello Leon, Such an abismal experience. I have treated Police officers with PTSD, easily and successfully. If you still have some buried emotions, this EMDR self-help program will aid you in finding and emoting and processing those emotions out of your brain forever. If you Google Self effective – Rapid Eye Movement you can read all about it. Or download it at Se-REM.com.

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  7. My experiences with psychiatric hospitals has been very different from Leon’s. Perhaps the difference is due to NHS in Great Britain being less well funded? The units I have been to are in privately owned hospitals and cost a fortune unless you have Medicare with a supplemental insurance to cover what Medicare does not, and they are fairly pleasant. Only on the weekends do you have mostly unstructured time, but visiting hours are open.
    I used to be one of those “frequent flyers”, but my suicidal depression was caused by the intolerable pain I was in and once I finally got the help I needed with pain medication I stopped wanting to die. I had the most trouble with keeping up with the constant group meetings that fill every hour on the unit, because I need to be lying down in order to be semi-comfortable. The staff would hound me to attend groups, and the only way to earn “fresh air breaks” is to attend the groups.
    The staff was wonderful and I actually miss them, though I am much happier staying home!
    I live in a Boston suburb, so you know how many good hospitals we have access to. I feel very fortunate. What Leon experienced is the nightmare most people, especially those who only know of the old and outdated portrayals, expect from “mental institutions”. Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Who is more evil than Nurse Rachid? Maybe Hannibal Lector? No – even he had more humanity.

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  8. This is a painful experience. I am sorry for your time there.

    Our own daughter has been hospitalized three times in the past. Her experience while in the psych hospital was the exact opposite: caring staff, small group offerings, exercise, therapy which you could choose or not to attend. She was able to get back on her feet after the third hospitalization.

    Psych Hospitals here in the US are certainly varying in their level of expertise and methodology, but what you went through sounds like a movie from the 1950’s.

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