Most of us have very specific, vivid ideas about what staying in a psychiatric hospital looks like. These ideas have likely been shaped by Hollywood or sensationalist news stories. Because how often do we hear about someone’s real-life stay at a psychiatric facility?
If going to therapy is rarely talked about, the conversations surrounding psychiatric hospitals are virtually non-existent. So we tend to imagine wild, worst-case scenarios.
To provide a more accurate picture, we asked several individuals who’ve been hospitalized to share what it was like for them.
Of course, every person’s experience is different, and every hospital is different. After all, not all medical hospitals, medical professionals, and psychotherapists are created equal. 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, lifesaving 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.
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, individuals 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 my 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
In 2004 at 16 years old, Katie Dale stayed at a juvenile psychiatric unit. Years later, at 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.”
Howard likened it to his sister, a veteran, living in a war zone for over 2 years: “She’s now a college graduate, married, and a mom and, well, frankly really boring…It doesn’t need to be said, however, that being in a war zone changed her. She’s seen things and felt things that she can’t forget about. Being in a war zone is traumatizing to everyone—it impacts everyone differently. But no one would think that my sister—or any military veteran—wouldn’t have scars that just won’t fade.”
“It’s like that for me as a person who was taken to a psychiatric hospital against his will,” Howard said. “[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 is 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.
She was surprised, however, 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…”
What If You Need to Get Admitted?
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 your struggles, fears, and concerns with hospital staff. “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.”
Garverich wanted readers to know that you’re not a failure if you have to be hospitalized. 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 also wanted readers to know 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.”