Behind The Curtain: First Hand Account Of Life Inside A Modern Mental Institution

LIKE the subject of mental illness as a whole, the very existence of psychiatric wards remains somewhat of a taboo for many of us. Various misconceptions are still held about mental hospitals, and their patients. Because, let’s face it, it’s not often you find yourself visiting one, and those who do don’t always talk about it. We think, Winona Ryder in ‘Girl, Interrupted’, or ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’. But what’s it really like to be an inpatient in a psychiatric unit in 2015?

Well, having been admitted to hospital four times since 2008, I’m here to debunk the myths, and confirm some of the truths. Sort of like a weird  tour guide.


Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted

There is much debate as to whether we still actually need psychiatric wards in this day and age, with the focus now on treating patients of mental ill health within the community. Unfortunately, this are a double-edged sword. While dated in many aspects, psych wards are a necessary support for those who are extremely unwell and a risk to themselves or others. Massive budget cuts to mental health services in both the UK and Ireland have put resources under strain over recent years and this has been all to evident during the course of my own admissions.

The fact is, psychiatric wards are strange places and filled with a diverse range of people.

They are notoriously difficult to get into most of the time due to limited resources, yet once you are admitted, it can be a long struggle to get out. The longest period for me was around three months, while others had been there for years.

To crudely summarise my experiences, I have a love-hate relationship with mental hospitals. When you’re initially admitted, you are usually in the worst state possible, and it can feel like the end of the world. Weeks go by, you are rapidly pumped full of medication and things start to become a bit more real again. It’s almost like being in a lingering parallel universe, where patients are in a constant cycle of relapse and recovery.

During my first admission at eighteen, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was I was very unwell, scared, and exhausted. I was initially surprised at how regimented things were in terms of safety, which should have been a given really. Patients are required to have all their belongings searched upon admission, with anything potentially dangerous being locked away. That includes shoe laces, belts, certain clothing, electrical devices, tweezers (Yes, tweezers. I’m not sure if they thought I was planning to pluck myself to death?).

The first seventy-two hour period is the most difficult, and dangerous, for patients so they’re required to only wear pyjamas and are monitored closely. To be honest, when you’re that ill, you don’t really notice how bizarre things are at the time. Depending on the circumstances, items are given back to you on a temporary basis as and when needed. The day I was allowed to shave my legs again was a rather monumental moment.

The worst things about being stuck in a mental hospital are as you’d expect: periods of panic that you’ll never get better and be stuck there like some of the longer-stay patients, people screaming in anguish throughout the night, only being able to see your family during visiting hours.

418876_255748531194531_789939392_nWhen someone has a psychotic episode in a place full of other mentally unwell people, you are all affected. Whether that be a lady in the midst of a psychosis screaming obscenities at you thinking you are someone else or someone running around claiming they are in an episode of The Matrix.

I’ve seen a woman die in the bed across from me after overdosing in the night, a six and a half foot man being held down and injected with a tranquilizer drug by five nurses and people return like zombies from having Electro-Convulsive Shock Therapy (ECT) with the mother of all headaches.

And yes, they still have padded rooms in the Republic of Ireland (although they aren’t used as much as they used to be) but not in the UK. The strange thing is, these things become normal. The difference nowadays I suppose is there is a lot more empathy and respect from those treating you.

Aside from the obvious difficulties, I have met some of my best friends in hospital. Patients inevitably become close, you’re shut off from the outside world, and mental health issues are talked about extremely openly. The smoking area always becomes the social hub of the place, and plenty of jokes are had about an otherwise bleak situation. It’s easy, after a period of getting better, to become institutionalized. You have a set routine, you go to bed at the same time, you talk to the same people…weirdly, it becomes safe. Sort of like a friendly prison. The real world is now a terrifying place that you’re not quite sure how to function in, and that can also be dangerous. Therein lies the problem, I think.

I became somewhat of a psych ward snob over the years. After being in two hospitals in Belfast, a couple of years later I was admitted to a ward in the south of Ireland. The budget cuts were even more evident there.

I remember peering disdainfully at the weak, iron-framed bed with one thin blanket in mid-December and asking the nurse, ‘Do these beds not adjust electronically?’ She just laughed.

At one point, the six-bed female ward had to have an extra bed squeezed into the middle, and another patient lying on one in the hall to accommodate a surge in admissions.

The food is a whole other matter in itself. Due to patients being on high doses of medication, it is important for them to eat regularly to digest them properly. Yes, like farm animals, you do stand in line with your tray waiting to be served. In one particular place, they rotated the same menu every couple of days. Think ‘powdered scrambled egg swimming in grease-water with limp, gray vegetables’. Vile. At one stage, they ran out of biscuits for days. Now, biscuits are a highly sought-after commodity in mental hospitals, sometimes the highlight of your day. So as you can imagine, we were all very pissed off and ended up having to get relatives to bring them in.

Yet despite all that, I have fond memories of both the friends and the staff I met there. The nurses have a difficult job, and most of them do their very best to make your stay as painless as possible.

You get the occasional Nurse Ratched who has become numb to the trauma she sees on a daily basis, but it’s easy to see how that could happen in a place where people are being constantly tortured by their own minds.

I think mental hospitals do have a place in our society, but much reform is needed. People are left there for long periods with very little therapy, just lots and lots of pills. That is not the answer. What these places do achieve, however, is providing an environment where it’s okay to not be okay. Once you lose everything, that grubby feeling of shame leaves you and you begin to not care anymore. You have nothing. And sometimes reaching that point is required in order to start building your life again.

“Was insanity just a matter of dropping the act?”

About the Author

Abby Williams
Belfast based author/writer specialising in entertainment, mental health and human interest.