If going to therapy is rarely discussed, then conversations about psychiatric hospitals are virtually non-existent. We look at what it’s really like.
Most of us have specific, vivid ideas about what staying in a psych ward (psychiatric hospital) looks like.
These ideas are likely shaped by Hollywood and sensationalist news stories, because how often do we hear about someone’s real-life stay at a psychiatric facility?
To provide a more accurate picture, we asked people who have been in a psych ward to share what it was like for them.
Every person’s experience is different, and every hospital, therapist, and medical professional is different. Some people find life-saving support there. Others come out with less positive experiences.
As Gabe Howard, a mental health advocate and certified peer supporter, noted, “[hospitals] range from quality care to overcrowded warehousing of sick people — and everything in between.”
Below you’ll find different stories of hospital stays — the realities, life-saving benefits, surprising experiences, and sometimes the scars a stay can leave behind.
Jennifer Marshall has been hospitalized five times. This included stays in October 2008 for postpartum psychosis and April 2010 for antenatal psychosis when she was 5 months pregnant.
Her last hospitalization was in September 2017 following the sudden death of her co-founder at This Is My Brave, a non-profit organization that aims to bring stories of mental illness and addiction out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Marshall stayed anywhere from 3 days to one week so she could get back on her antipsychotic medication to help stabilize her manic episodes.
Her days at the hospital had a specific structure:
- She and other patients would eat breakfast at 7:30 a.m. and start group therapy at 9 a.m.
- They’d eat lunch at 11:30 a.m. and then have art therapy or music therapy.
- For the rest of the day, people would watch movies or do their own artwork.
- Visiting hours were after dinner.
- Everyone was typically asleep by 9 or 10 p.m.
Marshall noted that being hospitalized was absolutely necessary for her recovery. “The first four hospitalizations I had were because I was unmedicated. Being hospitalized allowed me to realize the importance of my medication and also the importance of self-care in my recovery.”
Marshall was reminded of how much activities such as painting and listening to music relax her — and today, she’s incorporated them into her daily routine.
Katie R. Dale
At 16 years old in 2004, Katie Dale stayed at a juvenile psychiatric unit. Years later, age 24, she stayed at two different hospitals.
“I was exhibiting extreme manic-psychotic behaviors and needed monitoring to help administer medicines that would bring me back to reality,” said Dale, the creator of the website BipolarBrave.com and the e-book “GAMEPLAN: A Mental Health Resource Guide“.
After having her medication adjusted, her psychotic behaviors subsided and she was able to attend an outpatient program.
Dale said her stays were beneficial — and super stressful. “It’s stressful to stay in a confined, secured place with many other people in the state of mind you’re all in. I didn’t enjoy the stay. It was hard to be as patient as I needed to be to get the care I needed.”
In 2003, Howard, co-host of several Psych Central podcasts, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital because he was suicidal, delusional, and depressed. “I was taken to the ER by a friend and I had no idea I was even sick. It never occurred to me I’d be admitted.”
When Howard realized he was in a psychiatric ward, he started comparing it to what he’d seen on TV and in the movies. “It wasn’t even remotely the same. Pop culture got it wrong.”
Instead of being dangerous or prompting a spiritual awakening, Howard said, the hospital was “very boring and very bland.”
“A real psychiatric hospital would show a bunch of people sitting around bored wondering when the next activity or meal was. It’s not exciting — that’s for our safety.”
Howard unequivocally believes that being hospitalized saved his life. “I received a diagnosis; I started the process of getting the correct medications and the right therapy and medical treatments.”
And it was also traumatizing: “[I]t left scars that probably will never heal.”
“As a person who was taken to a psychiatric hospital against his will, […] I was locked in a ward and told that I can’t be trusted to sleep or shower without supervision. That I must be watched because I can’t be trusted with my own life. That leaves a mark on a person.”
Suzanne Garverich’s first hospitalization was after she graduated college in 1997. She was attending an intensive outpatient program at the same hospital, but she became actively suicidal and had a suicide plan.
That was the first of many hospitalizations until 2004. Today, Garverich is a public health advocate who’s passionate about fighting mental health stigma through her work on suicide prevention, as well as, telling her story.
Garverich was fortunate to stay at top-rated facilities thanks to having health insurance and parents who could afford the out-of-pocket costs. She found the staff to be very kind, caring, and respectful.
Because she stayed at the same hospital almost every time, they also got to know her and she didn’t have to retell her story. But she was surprised at the ineffectiveness of her discharge plans after some of the stays.
“I found myself sometimes only leaving with a plan to see my providers. I often felt really unprepared to leave the hospital.” During other stays, Garverich immediately went into an intensive outpatient program, where she learned invaluable skills and tools to stay safe and deal with underlying issues.
Overall, Garverich’s stays were vital. “They allowed me a place where I didn’t necessarily have to think about my safety, because it was a place that was designed to keep me safe. So I could take that off the table and deal with the issues that were leading towards my wanting to die. It was a safe place to do medication changes, talk about treatment changes, and just really focus on self-care…”
Garverich also met some of the “nicest people”. A stark contrast to the common myth that really “crazy,” dangerous people stay at psychiatric hospitals, she said.
They were your “neighbor, mother, father, friend, sister, brother, co-worker. They are people you freely interact with on a daily basis. Even though they are struggling, I found the people in there to be very compassionate and caring and gave me hope.”
Another myth, Garverich said, is that you’ll have to endure arcane medical procedures. During one stay, she received electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which was an informed, voluntary decision that she and her providers made. “I was treated with care and the utmost respect by the ECT team. These ECT treatments […] greatly increased my mood and aided in my stability…”
If you’re considering checking yourself into a psychiatric hospital, or you’ve been told you might have to, think of psychiatric hospitalization as any other kind of hospital stay, Marshall said. “Our brains get sick just like other organs in our bodies get sick or injured from time to time.”
Howard suggested asking different friends and family to visit you every day and being honest about any challenges you face, fears, and concerns with hospital staff. For example, “If you think aliens are here on earth to harvest your organs, share it. This is what treatment looks like. People can’t help you if you aren’t honest.”
You’re not a failure if you have to be hospitalized, says Garverich. Rather, hospitalization is “just another tool in helping with living with mental illness.”
Dale noted that the “key to getting good care in a facility like this is to be patient, be willing to work with the staff, and treat other patients as you would want to be treated.”
Howard mentioned that it takes time to get well. It took Howard 4 years to reach recovery.
“And when you get well, you can help others. If you don’t want to get better for your own well-being…get better so you can make someone else’s life better. We need more allies, advocates, and influencers.”
The experience of a psychiatric hospital will differ from person-to-person, but quality care and support can help you on your journey to recovery. Try to openly communicate your concerns with hospital staff and practice patience during your treatment.
If you’re considering checking into a psychiatric hospital it may be helpful to speak with a trusted loved one or mental health professional to support you during this time.
Whether it’s suggested that you be admitted, or you come to this decision yourself, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not alone. Consider visiting Psych Central’s mental health crisis page for additional support.
Are you currently in crisis?
If you feel like you’re having a mental health emergency, you can:
- Call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 for English and Spanish
- Chat with professionals at Lifeline Chat
- Text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741
- Check out Befrienders Worldwide or Suicide Stop if you’re not in the United States and need to find your country’s crisis hotline
If you decide to call an emergency number like 911, ask the operator to send someone trained in mental health, like Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) officers.