So earlier this year, I tried to take my own life. Yeah, that happened. Thankfully, I’m one of the lucky ones who lived to tell the tale. I looked, but did not leap (metaphorically speaking). It was a life-changing experience that I am still moving through and still learning from. I am here today because there was one person who was open with me about her struggles with mental illness and attempted suicide. I am lucky because she was brave. Now it is my turn to be brave.
This should not be so scary. Talking about depression and suicide should not be terrifying. Talking about mental illness should be no harder than admitting that you have a heart disorder or an autoimmune disease. It’s not like I asked for it, but there is a definite stigma built on fear and misconceptions about mental illness.
Fear can be paralyzing. Fear can keep you from talking about your problems and seeking the help that you need. Fear almost killed me.
Misconceptions fed that fear.
Here are 5 of the misconceptions that I had about the psych ward that kept me from seeking the help that I needed.
#1 The Attire
My conception of mental illness and the psych ward were born of television and movies. Those are the worst possible places to get mental health advice . . . or really any advice. One reason why I was reluctant to go to the emergency room during my mental health emergency – I was worried that they were going to take my measurements for a straight-jacket.
So when I was admitted to the psych ward, I was surprised to find that instead of a straight-jacket, I was given probably the ugliest green pajamas in the world. I was also surprised to learn that I could wear my own clothes as long as they had no draw strings or buckles – basically anything that I could use to harm myself or someone else. One of the hardest moments came during visiting hours on the second day. My husband had not had a chance to bring me any of my clothes, so I came out wearing the hideous green standard issue pajamas. I will never forget the look on his face. It was bad, you guys. I looked terrible. But at least it wasn’t a straight-jacket.
#2 The Accommodations
I don’t know about you, but in my mind when I visualize the psych ward, along with straight-jackets, I imagine white padded walls, white bolted doors, and white beds with tie-downs. Thankfully, this was not my experience. The shared rooms that we slept in were bare: no restraints, no bolts on the doors, no shackles. Again, I am a bit ashamed to admit that this surprised me.
The one caveat is that there was a solitary room with a bed and restraints for patients who lost control and were a physical danger to others. Fortunately, I was only locked in there once . . . okay, just kidding. I didn’t spend any time locked in solitary. Actually, thankfully, most of us didn’t.
One of my greatest fears is a loss of autonomy. This was a major reason why I avoided getting help for my depression. I think that I was afraid that if I admitted I needed help, and went somewhere to get it, men in white coats would think that I was crazy and would lock me up and throw away the key. I think I assumed that once you are admitted somewhere, they never let you leave.
The mental health facility that I was admitted to is a triage facility for emergency cases. Having a place like this nearby was a lifesaver for me (pun intended). It meant that when I needed quick medical attention in a safe environment, there was a place where I could go. But because it is a relatively small triage facility, they try to stabilize patients as quickly as possible so that there will be more space available for the next person in crisis. This meant that when I was ready to leave, they were happy to kick me out.
#4 The Treatments
When I think about treatments for mental illness, there is one that genuinely terrifies me. Aside from anti-depressants, it is the one that you hear the most about in popular culture. It’s called Electroconvulsive Therapy or (ECT) . I have never personally experienced Electroconvulsive Therapy so I cannot speak to what it is like (The link text above will take you to a Mayo Clinic article on the topic). What I will say is that in my experience, it is NOT the default treatment for mental illness. When you get to the psych ward, they don’t just strap you down to a bed and run electrical currents through your body. That’s good news, right?
In my experience, the first thing they do is assess the medications that you are currently taking (if any) and then try to give you better ones. The facility that I went to focused on stabilizing your medication until you could meet with a mental health professional on the outside. So even more good news, you will only receive ECT if you need ECT. They don’t just hand it out like candy.
#5 The People
Can you imagine being told that you will be spending an indefinite amount of time locked in a room with both people who are mentally ill, and people who are potentially violent criminals from nearby jails? Needless to say, I was not excited about the prospect. I mean, yes, I realize that I am one of those mentally ill people . . . but I know my crazy. I don’t know their crazy. You guys, I met some of the nicest, least crazy people there. Most of these people had lived very hard lives and instead of making them angry, it just made them humble. I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but it wasn’t that.
I think I was most surprised by how normal everybody was (well, almost everybody). I never expected to spend a large amount of time rubbing elbows with homeless people, alcoholics, drug addicts, drug dealers, and ex-convicts. I also didn’t expect to meet a grandmother, a rocker kid, a mom, and a student. It taught me that mental illness does not discriminate. Mental illness doesn’t care what you do for a living, or how much money you make, or who you are. Your brain, just like any other organ in your body, needs treatment sometimes. We as a society need to get to a point where treating your brain is as reflexive as treating a broken bone.
Light the darkness, friends.
If you are hurting, please don’t let fear stop you from asking for the help you need. It will get better.
If you are in crisis, please call 911 (US) or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255. If you are in another country, please call the corresponding emergency number for your country.
As with all of my posts, please share this if you think it might help someone you know.