Essay: Lessons learned as a patient in a psychiatric hospital

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(leaf/Big Stock Photo)

After noticing the warning signs of severe depression, I became a part of Pennsylvania’s mental health system on last month. I signed what is affectionately referred to by patients as a 201 form, surrendering myself voluntarily to be cared for by mental health professionals in an inpatient setting.

I was referred, by my psychiatrist, to a crisis response center, a triage and intake facility for individuals suffering from acute mental health issues. At the CRC, I met an individual struggling from addiction and a broken life, desperate for help. I also met an elderly woman, clearly in pain and angry that her graham crackers were broken. After spending hours in an uncomfortable waiting room, I was transferred by ambulance, in a heavily medicated and confused state, under the influence of ativan and clonidine, to a sprawling psychiatric hospital far from where I lived.

Upon arriving, I was held in yet another CRC, evaluated by a triage team, and assigned to a ward. I was thoroughly searched, and I surrendered my belt, my shoes, my phone, and my freedom. A friendly but cautious “mental health technician” escorted me up to my new home. My belongings were again searched and inventoried, and I was subjected to a cursory physical examination by a physician’s assistant. The charge nurse informed me of the rules of the facility, showed me to my room, and gave me a chance to decompress. By then I was running on fumes.

It took me a few hours after I was admitted to truly understand where I was. And then the tears arrived. I struggled with competing thoughts. Being a pre-med student, I immediately framed this as an opportunity to learn, focusing on evaluating the facility and its many problems instead of my own. But I also had feelings of desperation. I pleaded with my parents on the phone, with the psychiatrist in charge of my treatment team, and with anyone who would listen, to let me out.

I didn’t think I belonged in such a restrictive environment, and figured it was a waste of time to be in such a dull setting. But since I had used suicide “buzzwords” in the CRC, I was stuck for at least a week.

Over the course of a week, I got to know my fellow patients. I was introduced to some who had been in and out of the facility before, who hoarded food in her room to share with other patients; a person diagnosed with schizophrenia who had worked for the United Nations and claimed to hold multiple Ph.D.s; and a Salvadoran who in broken English reported having hallucinated receiving phone calls threatening her family. There was an ex-con with a hardened exterior and a warm heart, a heavily tattooed patient who was always there for me, and a quiet homeless man with an incredibly poetic voice. We all came from different worlds but had one thing in common: We were all in pain.

I also got to know the hospital’s staff. Dr. S., the head of my treatment team, frequently told me that I should consider a career other than medicine. There was a med student, proudly donning his white coat, shepherding patients to and from consultations. There was a “tech” with wisdom and warmth far beyond that of anyone else in the hospital. We were introduced to a variety of therapists, social workers, activity coordinators, phlebotomists, finance professionals, and nurses. Some were kinder than others. Some spoke to us in that “sing-song” preschool teacher’s voice. Others addressed us as adults.

My experience was both unusual and typical. It brought to mind movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but it had its own unique flavor. I was in a locked ward on suicide watch, and I spent most of my time either pacing the halls or staring into space in the day room. I held my general chemistry textbook close to my chest like the security blanket it was, clutching any last vestiges of the outside world. I was given 30-60 minutes a day in the yard, where I played hoops or read my book with an elderly Russian who never spoke.

On my second-to-last day in the facility, I was given the opportunity, with a group of other patients, to eat lunch in the staff cafeteria. This “privilege,” granted to patients who had been in the hospital for more than a few days, was a welcome respite from the under-seasoned and over-fried food served to us for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. After getting my cheesesteak, salad, and pie, a feast fit for a king, waiting to be herded to our secluded dining area, a higher-up asked me if I was an employee or a family member waiting to pay. I responded, “No, I’m an inmate.”

The color drained from her face. Throughout my experience at the hospital, I needed to be the class clown. Humor was one of the few tools that brought patients and staff together, something that gave a human touch to this experience. At lunch, I met someone in recovery, living with mental illness, who now worked at the hospital as its activities coordinator. This gentleman was one of the only staff members who spoke to us like we were adults, shared his personal experience with depression, anxiety, and addiction, and gave us valuable lessons on how to take recovery from mental illness into our own hands.

Reflecting on this recent experience these past few days, I started to see the value of it. I was desperately seeking a reset button, a safe environment, and recovery. And despite the many grievances I had with the facility and its policies, I learned a tremendous amount about myself and others. We all had something in common, despite a wide socioeconomic spectrum separating us. Although I hated the hospital’s overemphasis on risk-management and its correspondingly restrictive policies, I learned to unplug, to look within, and to be present.

I left the hospital in a manner similar to how I arrived — early in the morning, somewhat confused about where to go next — with two bus tokens and a paper bag full of my belongings in my hands. But I also left with a new lease on life and gratitude toward those who had helped me along the way.

I would not have been able to survive this experience without the support of my parents and dear friends who called and came to visit me. I treasured those 60 minutes granted to us every other day for in-person visits, and gained a new appreciation for how lucky I was to have such a strong support system.

While much of the work in my recovery remains to be accomplished, I gained some valuable tools from my experience. I now recognize the importance of unplugging, the joy that can come from being outside, and the importance of smiling. I will be forever grateful for this life-changing but difficult experience.

Another version of this essay originally appeared in

Max Ellithorpe is a post-baccalaureate pre-med student at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine. He is from Chicago and has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in political science from the University of Illinois. Prior to joining Temple’s post-bac program, he worked for KPMG and the Federal Reserve System.

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