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Mental Health: My experience in a psych ward

Opinions_AileyOToole_PsychWard_ CG Hughes - Flickr

CG Hughes/Flickr

Ailey O’Toole
   Staff Writer

Throughout this past year, I have been lucky enough to write articles about mental health in order to provide our campus with more information about different disorders, treatments and also to hopefully begin a revolution of destigmatization about mental illness.

This issue is very near and dear to my heart because I have struggled a great deal with mental illness and faced many stigmas and assumptions about what my illnesses indicate about who I am as a person. I would like to talk about some of my personal experiences to shed light on a highly misunderstood and misrepresented topic: psychiatric wards.

I’ve had good experiences and bad experiences with psychiatric wards, and my time spent there was nothing like what pop culture taught me to expect it would be.

One of Hollywood’s favorite topics for horror movies are psych wards, which is part of the reason I hate that term so much. “Psych ward” has such a negative connotation, and those hospitals are really not a bad thing.

During my stays at different hospitals, I met some of the bravest, strongest and kindest people I know to this day. The doctors and nurses were kind and caring, and they truly wanted their patients to heal. The hospitals were not some scary place, with flickering lights and sedated people walking around in hospital gowns like mummies and screams coming from behind locked doors.

One hospital I stayed at had an Xbox in the unit, and we had pet therapy twice a week. Does that sound like what you see in the movies? Probably not.

When I say I’ve had bad experiences with psychiatric hospitals, I know what you guys are thinking: no, my roommate wasn’t a psycho-killer who tried to off me in my sleep; no, neither I nor anyone else there was electrocuted; no, I wasn’t starved or forced to submit to any kind of unconventional treatment.

The nurses were kind; the doctors were kind; we watched movies and participated in art therapy; we took naps. It was a calming environment that allowed me to have a break from the things that caused me so much stress that I had to be hospitalized in the first place.

It wasn’t a crazy, haunted hospital with lunatic patients who were out to get me. It was just a regular hospital with, to be blunt, doctors who weren’t very good at their job.

However, the good experiences I’ve had totally overrule any of the bad ones. When I was 17-years-old, I stayed on the pediatric psychiatric unit at UNC for two weeks, and it was a miracle experience for me. There was a huge window that let in all this light; there was a piano and a ping-pong table and an Xbox; the doctors brought therapy dogs to the unit twice a week; and we did more art therapy than I thought possible.

At the time, I was only a week away from graduating, but most of the kids were younger than me (some as young as 12), so we had a classroom type activity where we actually went to another part of the hospital that was set up as a learning area. We did reading activities, and someone came in to talk to us about fossils.

It was kind of boring for me, but the younger kids loved it. The boys and girls weren’t separated; we were all in the same unit together. We even had outside time where we played dodgeball.

We filled out a menu every day where we were allowed to order what we wanted for each meal; there was no soda or coffee, but they did have the best sweet tea, and I ate so much Jell-O. My family visited every day and brought me stuff from home: clothes, books and blankets.

It didn’t feel at all like a prison. There weren’t guards in white uniforms and no one was being sedated. Psychiatric wards are meant to be a safe space for people to heal, and that’s exactly what that place was. I recovered a lot while I was there.

The other great experience I had in a psychiatric hospital was right here in Greensboro at the Moses Cone Behavioral Health Center. I stayed there for about a week and again found a place that was incredibly conducive to my healing. The nurses knew that the patients there were vulnerable and could be highly emotionally reactive, so they were very sensitive to that: they never ordered us around or yelled at us or threatened us. They were really just there to help.

I also participated in a lot of art therapy while I was there (it’s very good for reducing stress), and I participated in a lot of meditation. Since I was staying on an adult unit this time, I was allowed a few more privileges: I was allowed to keep all my piercings in, I could wear makeup, and I was allowed to have pants with zippers.

Those things may sound trivial, but trust me, it was kind of a big deal.

For meals, we went to a cafeteria where the food was served buffet style, and I ate like a queen for a week: fried chicken, French toast, apple pie, you name it. Staying at that hospital, I felt safe, and I can’t tell you how influential that was to me getting better.

Doctors work hard to create places where people whose own minds were fighting against them can feel safe and can heal during vulnerable periods of their lives. That’s what psychiatric hospitals are really about; not sedating people and forcing them to submit to electroshock therapy, but about helping people heal.

I didn’t stay in places with dimly lit halls and flickering lights, with screams coming from behind the walls and guards looking to put me in a straight jacket. The hospitals I stayed at were welcoming, and the staff was kind, and I was truly able to get better. If you ever find yourself in a situation where a stay at a psychiatric ward may be necessary, don’t be afraid. It’s nothing like the movies.

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