Mental health treatment is a historically recent endeavour, and for the most part, Australia is making good headway. Talk therapy is no longer much of a taboo, we have a diverse range of support services available, and we’re generally having more helpful conversations with our loved ones.
Inpatient care, however, is a facet of mental health treatment that maintains an air of the macabre. The concept of a psychiatric hospital still has a tendency to throw us right back to Ken Kesey’s 1962 portrayal in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, or as the eerie setting to an array of low-budget slasher films.
But what’s it really like, in current-day Australia, to voluntarily be admitted into a psychiatric hospital? (Not bad, thanks for asking!)
I am a vibrant young woman who loves crafts and kitsch, and who happens to have Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I also experience issues with bipolarity and anxiety. While each of these umbrella terms is loaded with connotation, I’m not an archetype of disorder. Hardly anyone ever is. You wouldn’t pick me out on the street – unless you happen to be particularly curious about adults with poor fashion sense, or something like that.
This is my first long-term hospital stay for the purpose of balancing my medications to best suit my rather odd psychological portrait. As with most experiences, the reality is an amalgam of media-inspired expectations and some surprising differences.
If you want to use any contraband during your stay, you need to be supervised while you do it. This is how I found myself sitting in the bathroom clipping my toenails under the watchful eye of a nurse
For one thing, the rooms aren’t padded, although every other precaution is covered so the walls don’t have to be. Personal belongings are searched and certain items are put into storage – some obvious ones, like sewing needles and ibuprofen, but some that don’t even seem vaguely threatening, like tigerbalm or a small jar of honey. If you want to use any contraband during your stay, you need to be supervised while you do it. This is how I found myself sitting in the bathroom clipping my toenails under the watchful eye of a nurse.
Cords are shortened, plastic bags are forbidden, and every edge has been softly rounded away, likewise to the medications smoothing the sharper edges of my psyche. Even the water temperature is moderated so we cannot scald ourselves.
The precautions are understandable, but frightening in how they highlight the desperation of suicide. When life feels impossibly intolerable, everything becomes a potential weapon against our own existence.
To me, the lack of privacy is particularly overwhelming. There are no locks, and the staff have so much to do that they knock like an intrusive parent does – while they are already halfway through the door. There are hourly “obs” to check that you are still functioning. In the night, torchlights flutter across your face and seep through your eyelids. Two days in, I started worrying over how I would navigate masturbating stealthily. The next evening, I got caught masturbating by a poor, ill-fated nurse.
On television shows, group therapy is commonly portrayed like a demoralising Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It is much less intimidating, and it exists for a reason – it genuinely helps. There are three different groups to attend each weekday, plus a morning walk. And while we do sometimes sit in a circle with strangers and talk about our woes, this isn’t the predominant theme of the group therapies.
Sometimes we do yoga, art or music. Sometimes we learn about psychological theories. Often, if we are doing a talk-based therapy, it will be focused on practical coping strategies, improved thinking patterns, and symptom management. The group facilitators are hyper-cognisant of our boundaries, and check up on anyone afterwards if they are concerned that the subject matter may have been overwhelming.
With fewer distractions, we are left with an acute sense of humanity that often eludes us in our regular lives, in our jobs, in the world
The patients in the hospital, myself included, are indistinguishable from any people you could randomly pick out of a public place. There are the ones that never thought they would find themselves here, the ones that have been in and out of treatment for years, and the ones that you’d never suspect had a care in the world. We are your grandmother, your football coach, or your fun aunt. We are you.
While brewing tea, I spoke to a fellow patient about the unprecedented warmth of the hospital community. He offered an interesting theory which I wrote in my diary.
“It’s the social levelling. It interrupts the usual functioning of our ego. Being here, we know we’re all the same somehow, no matter how different we otherwise are.”
He was right. With fewer distractions, we are left with an acute sense of humanity that often eludes us in our regular lives, in our jobs, in the world. We cannot plead ignorance to each other’s humanness in the same way that often helps us sleep at night. Whether a high school student or a businessman, all that’s left to offer is empathy.
The biggest and most welcome surprise is the enriching nature of the experience. We are offered safety, support, and a library stocked with hilariously embarrassing Mills and Boon titles. I am where I need to be, but am being set up to succeed once I leave too. And if I can’t sneak in a pencil sharpener, there’s a slim chance that a slasher villain can break loose.
According to the Black Dog Institute, 75 per cent of people who receive inpatient mental health care experience improved long and short term outcomes. I think I can be one of them.
Watch the two-part documentary series How ‘Mad’ Are You? on SBS On Demand.