Six Questions You Might Be Scared To Ask About Being On A Psych Ward
Welcome my darlings back to another installment of ‘Six Questions You Might Be Afraid To Ask’, this time all about being in a psychiatric unit! My friend Phills helped me out with these questions, so credit to him for putting up with my constant asking for things. It takes a village to write a blog, and I am always so grateful to anyone who deals with me being needy. And I didn’t want all the questions to come from myself, and my personal experience, because we’re all different after all.
A small disclaimer: these questions are being answered from my own experience. I spent time on an adolescent psych unit when I was 17, and so others experiences will vary greatly. This is particularly true of adult wards, and indeed other units up and down the country. For other context, it was the summer of 2013, and I was placed in a unit in Bristol (south of England) after a suicide attempt. I will try and provide answers that are as broad as possible, and try not to be that specific - I went into more specifics here - but if something doesn’t match up to your own experiences, then please feel free to answer or explain anything you want down in the comment box below!
Eventually, if I carry on this little series (the self-harm version did pretty well numbers wise), I would love to be able to collaborate with other people who are comfortable with speaking out about their own experiences in order to share a perspective that isn’t mine. Because let's face it, despite how hilarious I am, just hearing me bang on does get a little boring in time.
On with the show!
QUESTION ONE: WHAT DO YOU DO ALL DAY?
Honestly? Not a lot.
Obviously, it’s a mental health unit, so there are daily therapies and therapy groups and therapy activities. Our days were very structured - we were woken at the same time every day, we had breakfast at the same time each day, each day was split into blocks, lunch and dinner were at the same times, we always had the same amount of free time in the evening, and were sent to bed at the same time every day. The things that varied were the activities that occupied each block, although therapy groups tended to be on a timetable that happened the same every week.
Some mornings we began with a movement therapy group, we always had circle group therapy every morning after breakfast to discuss how we were feeling that day, some days we had art therapy, once a week we had a meditation session, sometimes we went on field trips, there was individual therapy sessions (sometimes with a healthcare assistant, sometimes with a psychiatrist, sometimes with a therapist), and there were periods of the day when we had free time too.
Any time that wasn’t spent doing structured activities was free time. We had a living room area with sofas, board games, an assortment of other activities, and a TV - although trying to decide on something that everyone wanted to watch was a ballache. We ended up watching a lot of Come Dine With Me, 4 In A Bed, and property programmes. Almost everyone also took up knitting, crochet, or cross-stitch, even if they were initially reluctant. Even the HCA’s who were our constant watchers used to knit. It wasn’t a strange sight to see 8 girls (we only had two boys in our unit, and they kept to their rooms) sat in front of Come Dine With Me, knitting, and nattering about life.
Some of the best conversations I ever had happened in that one room. The HCA’s and nurses were our only real connections to the outside world on a daily basis, and although they never told us any of the bad stuff going on (we had enough to deal with at that point), they always kept us up to date with any of the other stuff. Dorothy, our favourite night nurse, used to come in and always tell us what she’d bought in the Zara sale. I’ve never known anyone who could shop a sale quite like that woman. There was also Simon, who would tell tales of his travels through Russia and the rest of the world, and would always end with ‘get out of here, and go travelling. It’ll do you the world of good’. And reader, he was right. More on that another day.
Honestly, if you imagine the sort of activities little old ladies in nursing homes would do, that was us. We tried our hands at nearly everything imaginable to occupy the time before bedtime. Time means almost nothing, and passes so slowly in a unit. There was one night I remember though, it was just me and two other girls, and we squirelled ourselves away in a visitors room and played games until they found us and told us it was bedtime. The chats we had that evening were some of the deepest I’ve ever had, although we were encouraged not to discuss our diagnosis’ and mental health stuff with each other.
QUESTION TWO: WERE YOU ALLOWED TO LEAVE, OR WERE YOU LOCKED IN WITH THE KEY THROWN AWAY?
A weird bit of both? I was admitted voluntarily (although if I hadn’t agreed to it I would have been sectioned), so technically I could stop treatment at any time and go home. But whilst I was staying there, we weren’t ever allowed outside alone. Honestly, we weren’t really allowed anywhere alone. Especially on your first couple days, when you’re on a 1-1. They come with you to the toilet, sit in the same room as you at all times, and have a chair outside your room at night. That level of privacy invasion is not fun.
But we didn’t stay in the unit all the time. For those who were well enough (i.e didn’t have an eating disorder that meant they were underweight), we went on field trips around Bristol once a week. We went to the zoo, we went to the docks and played golf, we went to a museum once I believe. We could also ask, as a group, to go out on a walk with a couple of the HCA’s if we were tired of being cooped up in the two or three rooms available to us in the unit. We did that once or twice, and it was just nice to get out and walk around the area.
When you were deemed well enough, you also started to get leave. In the beginning, when I had family to visit, we had to stay in the unit in one of the family rooms, but eventually as time progressed I got a couple hours evening leave, then a few more hours leave, then overnight leave, until I was spending entire weekends back at home. I was still never alone, and wasn’t left alone for a long time, but there was no locking of doors and throwing away the key.
Well, the front door was locked. But that was so we couldn’t escape.
(Again, I don’t know what the policy is for adult units.)
QUESTION THREE: ARE YOU ALLOWED YOUR PHONE/INTERNET?
We weren’t allowed to be connected to the internet, but we were allowed to text and call home whenever we wanted. So my smartphone (I think it was a Samsung S3 at the time) was taken from me and mum took it home, and I put my SIM card in one of the old Nokia bricks they had on hand for patients to use. Day patients I believe just had to put their phones in a box that would be locked away, and then could collect them at the end of the day before they went home. That phone was my lifeline - it meant that I could always call mum or text her, without having to bother any of the staff. I spent many an hour sat on the deep windowsill in my room, crying on the phone to mum.
There was no WiFi or anything like that either, and no computer access. I don’t know what they thought we would get up to on the internet, but it was a complete social media and internet in general detox. The only time that I believe patients were allowed computer access was during school hours (more on that later), but other than that it was old fashioned activities. That’s why we spent so much time knitting, chatting, and watching TV.
Did I end up sneaking my phone in after a weekend at home and spending a couple hours before bed on it? That’s for you to decide…
QUESTION FOUR: DO YOU HAVE TO DO SCHOOL IF YOU’RE STILL IN SCHOOL?
On an adolescent unit, yes. They have dedicated school rooms and teachers who will come in to teach the patients, and exams and things run as normal. They really want to disrupt your life as little as possible, although I assume extra precautions are taken (they aren’t going to teach the works of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath to a group of mentally ill teens), and more allowances are made.
I say assume, I was never there to do school because I was in the unit over the summer. In fact, they let me out only five days before my first proper year of A Levels started, which was on it’s own a giant mindfuck and meant I almost got sectioned because I couldn’t cope. But in a nutshell, yes. School still happens.
QUESTION FIVE: DOES IT ACTUALLY FIX YOU/DO YOU COME OUT BETTER?
I didn’t. In fact, I got worse for many, many months after I left the unit. Personally, I think I left too soon. I could cope being in the unit because it was safe, the routine was familiar, and there was always someone on hand to deal with any crises or breakdowns, and so I think everyone thought I was doing a lot better than I actually was. The other problem was I lived too far away to downgrade to a day patient, because I couldn’t travel from Exeter to Bristol every day. So once I was out of the unit, I was basically on my own because CAMHS were, it has to be said, shit.
So my self-harming and suicidal tendencies got worse, not helped by the fact that every book we studied in A Level English Literature focused on themes of mental health and suicide. It was like they were trying to break me. It’s taken many years for me to get to a stable place, and I’m still not really there yet.
So no. For me, being in the unit didn’t fix me. It was a stopgap when no-one knew what else to do, and I needed to be kept safe from myself because I was a danger to my own life. Once that stopgap wasn’t needed, I was let go. And immediately went and did what they’d been trying to stop me from doing.
For other people, I assume it does help. It’s never the end of treatment though, so people don’t just come out magically better. It’s always an ongoing process of recovery, and the unit is really just the first step on that road. Especially if you’re ill enough to be in a unit in the first place. A few weeks or months of treatment isn’t going to be the magic cure. That shit takes time. It sucks.
QUESTION SIX: WAS IT LIKE *INSERT NAME OF ANY TV SHOW HERE*?
No, not really. Life on an adolescent unit - or at the very least, the one I was on - is a lot more boring than the media would have you believe. It’s all very samey, you see the same people day in and day out, you do the same activities, you have therapy, you relive your traumatic childhood. Nothing much ever really changed on the unit. And for TV, they obviously have to dramatise it a bit more.
So there we have it. Six questions, answered. I might come back to this one because there’s still so much I could say about life on a psych ward, but we’ll leave that for another day. In the meantime, leave any questions down below, or share your own experiences should you wish. Safe space, open space, we’re all a family on this blog.