What is it like in a mental hospital?
February 3, 2005 5:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm, uh. Spending some time in a hospital. Being treated for a mental disorder. [sign here, here, here, and come inside]

I've heard only horror stories about mental hospitals and I'd like to know what to expect. My doctor won't give me much: how long I'll be in there, etc. He says I can wear my own clothes and bring in books, but that's all I know.

Can anyone tell me what it will be like? What should I bring? How long will I be there? What are they going to do to me? Any advice?
posted by honeydew to Health & Fitness (51 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You'll be there as long as you need to be - no one has an interest in locking you up forever and forgetting about you. You'll be safe and taken care of.

Bring comfortable clothes, but don't spend all day in pajamas. You will want to get dressed and feel as normal as possible. Bring some scented lotion (if you're into that); it will be a comforting scent to counter some of the institutionalness of the hospital. If you are allowed, bring your favorite snack. You may be able to have your favorite soda or cookies at snacktime.

Be prepared to be bored, to be scared, and to be frustrated. But know that there are people who care about you and want to see you get well.

Good luck!
posted by Coffeemate at 5:53 PM on February 3, 2005

honeydew: I can give you some practical advice. My email's in my profile.
posted by gokart4xmas at 5:54 PM on February 3, 2005

I echo gokart4xmas, email is in my profile as well
posted by Hands of Manos at 6:08 PM on February 3, 2005

The recurring thing I hear from patients I see on the psych areas is that they're bored. The environment is supposed to be as stress-free as possible, which means that there's very little to do. Bring a deck of cards or a little backgammon-chess set, and maybe a Hoyle's if you don't know many card games.

Chat with other folks (they're not dangerous); make friends with an orderly who you can get to bring you little 4-oz. juices; await the daily chat with the doctor; try to cultivate a Zen-like detachment; and, when it stops worrying you to do so, think about getting better.

Hope it goes smoothly and quickly for you!
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:15 PM on February 3, 2005

may I ask what's the diagnosis?
posted by nj_subgenius at 6:20 PM on February 3, 2005

gokart4xmas and Hand of Manos - I understand that you may not want to share your personal experiences here in front of the masses, but I'd like to point out that is a big part of the point of AskMe.
posted by FlamingBore at 6:21 PM on February 3, 2005

flamingbore: I could be wrong but the point of AskMe is to answer the question for the person who asked it, not to entertain us. They're giving him info the way they feel comfortable. It's not polite to ask them to share with the studio audience if they don't want.
posted by jonmc at 6:25 PM on February 3, 2005

I understand that you may not want to share your personal experiences here in front of the masses, but I'd like to point out that is a big part of the point of AskMe

Granted, but I don't think that this places any special responsibility or obligation on them to share those experience here. (Which definitely seems to be implicit argument of making that comment, otherwise, why make the point?).

Especially given the topic at hand, it's easy for me to understand why they would offer that. I definitely vote we let that choice slide.
posted by LairBob at 6:34 PM on February 3, 2005


Fair enough.

Honeydew, if you smoke bring LOTS of cigarettes. Remain calm and don't freak out (if you are feeling uncomfortable just calmly go tell an admin).

Befriend the staff and earn their trust. Don't skip the meetings and gatherings (see: earn trust). If you get put in a room with a roommate that you don't like, tell the staff.

I agree about the cards (bring them and a book on different type of games).

And crying is okay.

Jonmc: thanks. It's okay, but thanks
posted by Hands of Manos at 6:40 PM on February 3, 2005

One other thing. Even if you don't have an ounce of creativity, bring a sketchbook and just draw out your feelings. It's good for you.
posted by Hands of Manos at 6:43 PM on February 3, 2005

Maybe you could bring some fun things you'd like to learn how to do- knitting, juggling, chess? That'll give you something to do.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:06 PM on February 3, 2005 [1 favorite]

I second the comfortable clothing. They usually try and get "clients" involved in physical activity. Check, but I doubt you will have internet access while you are there. Books, puzzles, toiletries are good to have. Same with snacks. Cigarettes if you smoke. I wish you the best.
posted by 6:1 at 7:12 PM on February 3, 2005


Your thoughts are noble, but knitting means long metal object. That's not good.

Learning to juggle will drive you crazy! (it took me a year to learn how to do that)

Chess = great idea! That way you can invite a person in to share his/her reasons why he/she is there
posted by Hands of Manos at 7:18 PM on February 3, 2005

Why is your doctor keeping information from you? Unless you're a minor or incompetent to manage your own care, you are owed an answer to your questions.

If this is an involuntary commitment, hire a lawyer ASAP to look out for your interests.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:19 PM on February 3, 2005

Hehe, yea, Hands of Manos, I wasn't sure if knitting would be allowed, but it is pretty fun time killer, especially once you start making stuff you can actually use.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:26 PM on February 3, 2005 [1 favorite]

Prepare to be bored. Prepare to be surrounded by people who may be worse off than you in many respects and not that much fun to be around. Bring things that you think you will want to read but also bring a lot of more lightweight reading material in case they have you on any sort of heavy sedatives or anti-psychotics. Bring music, if you can, in case you really can't read much. Bring books and magazines and something pretty low key like crossword puzzles. Bring pads and pads of paper and envelopes and stamps, along with your address book. Get some addresses of people you might want to write to.

You may want to familiarize yourself with your rights as a patient before you go in so that you are well aware of what treatments and medications you can refuse if you don't want them or they make you feel bad. If you have problems with mania, you may be put on medications that make you very very sluggish. One of the bad side effects of these sorts of meds is that they can also make you depressed and generally unahppy if you're used to having energy and drive. After my overdose I was on anti-seizure meds for a while and I've never been more depressed or unsure about what I was doing with my life. I suddenly had these horrible "why aren't I married with a normal job and lifestyle!" feelings that I haven't had before or since. Be prepared to not recognize yourself sometimes; bring things that help you keep in touch with yourself. A lot of people in hospitals keep journals.

If you are allowed visitors, figure out what the rules are for having them. If you have friends or family who might visit, try to explain the rules ahead of time so that it's easier for them to see you. There will be routines set up for you, think about having your own routine [exercise, smoking, writing] that is yours. All the other advice has been really good. Be agreeable if you can handle it and remember that time will go more quickly and easily if you have things to do and possibly people to do them with. I wish you the best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 7:39 PM on February 3, 2005

Be prepared to feel utterly helpless and a total failure. Tell that feeling to sod off, its not useful and counter productive. Depending on how the ward is run, you may have very little control over your time. Its just a temporary state of affairs, you'll remain yourself and get through this.

Watch out for power-tripping staff, they can be dangerous. Do not cross wills with any staff until you know what the score is. At some point, your recovery might depend on some assertiveness, but not at first.
posted by Goofyy at 8:10 PM on February 3, 2005

What it'll be like depends a lot on where you are, what state / or country. I have dealt with staff/hospitals in three different states (on a non-imate/patient status). It is good to know your rights before you go. if there is an omnibudsman for your state make sure you have access to the number if needed. It will also depend on what you are being treated for. In the best of circumstances, as other people have said, you will be bored and possible frustrated.
Hang in there, things will get better.
posted by edgeways at 8:30 PM on February 3, 2005

I've got some experience with this also. If you still want more info, my e-mail is in my profile.
posted by Four-Eyed Girl at 8:36 PM on February 3, 2005

Find out exactly what you can and cannot take. The ward my exwife was in disallowed anything sharp including pens and pencils. Although she was allowed to smoke, smoke breaks were determined at the whim of the staff. No lighters, patients used a lighting device mounted on the wall.

Visiting hours: 7 pm to 8 pm, Wednesday; 2 pm to 3 pm, Sunday; family only, no children under 18

Soft drinks: To be brought by visitors, 12 to 16 oz plastic containers, 12 max per visit (see visiting hours). No cans, no 2 liter bottles.

One phone for all patients in the ward; no cell phones.

Without knowing more of your particular situation, it's hard to tell if your stay will be this strict.
posted by mischief at 8:53 PM on February 3, 2005

I have a mentally ill parent who has needed hospitalization about once every five years. You learn new things each time.

Bring small, portable things you wouldn't mind losing. Cards, magnetic game sets, books (just no first editions), magazines. I don't know about portable music players, but since things have a way of vanishing from the ward, I would suggest leaving the iPod at home. Cigarettes are useful even if you don't smoke, the same way they are in prison. I seem to recall that drawstrings are a no-no, and shoes with laces might be as well. Warm slippers and a comfy sweater would be an excellent idea, since hospitals can be cold. Leave the nice jewelry and the watch. If it ain't nailed down, someone will be thinking about taking it... and if it has been nailed down chances are someone tried anyway.

You'll probably get a small gym-type locker--which isn't actually locked--in a locker room to keep odds and ends in. If there's any personal hygiene stuff you can't live without, bring it. (Just not the forty-dollar body wash.) You'll also get some storage space in your room. This depends on the place, but I've seen sets of drawers and closet space to hang things.

You'll be supervised in the shower, and if you're allowed a razor, you'll be watched while doing any personal grooming with it. (They usually supply the razors.)

You may have a roommate. Good luck with that. The best roommate my parent had was on suicide watch and rarely got out of bed, if that says anything.

Try to find out in advance what the deal is with the phones. The most recent hospital I remember had two pay phones in the common room, instead of one for each bed. You'll be itching to talk to people you know after a while.

Depending on what you're in for, they might adjust your medication or give you new stuff. This isn't really optional, and if you raise a stink about it or refuse to take it, they will bring hell down on your head. You can talk to the nurses and MDs on call in the ward, and if they're worth their title they will listen to the effects, good or bad, the new stuff is having on you. If you need to get a message to your doctor outside, call a friend or family member and have them do it.

They usually do group therapy in hospitals--art, talking, etc. You'll have one-on-one time with a shrink during the weekdays at least. From what I've seen, admissions can be at any time, but discharges are always during the week. Working hours, I guess.

Another thing I remember hearing is that, compared to outside life, one has very little control over what they do. That's also done on purpose, so if you feel you're being led around it isn't paranoia. They have a specific structure and schedule they want you to stick to, and showing the ability to do that is a good thing.

If you're given the option to be shown around the place when you first arrive, take it. It's good to know where things are.

Mostly, you'll be bored out of your mind and more than a little unsettled. It's a tedious place, the food stinks, the TV is on all the time, and the company can range from sad to frightening. You might feel more depressed coming out of it. That's normal, it'll pass, just don't let that drag you down further. The way my parent always has seen this is that they were in to get better despite everything around them. It can be done.

honeydew, if you want to know anything more, email's in my profile. All you gawkers, if you want to know more, go ahead and ask me here. I've never been admitted myself, but after all this time I feel like I have. (And on more than a few cases, I've wondered if it wasn't me who needed to go in instead.)
posted by cmyk at 9:11 PM on February 3, 2005

Lots of knitting needles are wood, and knitting is very meditational. I would suggest bringing a journal, your own towel, your own pillow, pictures of people close to you, books you've been putting off reading, lip balm, nail clippers--anything you use that you don't usually notice you need.
posted by scazza at 9:22 PM on February 3, 2005

I can't find it now, but there was a thread a good while ago with (I think) the user asking what to do to help his wife who was taking a "break." I think there was lots of good advice there. Can anybody find this thread for honeydew?
posted by rustcellar at 10:52 PM on February 3, 2005

Response by poster: I'm a few months under 21 but and trying my hardest not to get my extremely religious parents involved. The hospital is in New Orleans. I'm a despressed/suididal intent/paranoid. Don't care so much, I just need to know what they'll do. What I'll need. No cell phones anywhere? Cd players allowed? Who can visit me? Who can I keep out? What do I tell my profs, my boss?

And I don't smoke.

Help my tomorrow afternoon, please. I hate doing this so publicly but I don't know where to go.
posted by honeydew at 11:35 PM on February 3, 2005

Response by poster: Oh, if pen and pencil are sharp: are markers?
posted by honeydew at 11:36 PM on February 3, 2005

Voluntary or involuntary? In either case, make sure you know how to petition a judge for release if you want out and they won't let you. Voluntary institutionalizations have a way of becoming involuntary.

You probably won't be in that long, especially if it's a private or quasi-private hospital and you are not independently wealthy. My doctors were very up front with me; 20 years ago, they said, it was routine to keep people in for several months. I — and most patients who weren't wards of the state or otherwise paid for indefinitely — got out in a week to ten days, because that's all pretty much anyone's insurance will cover anymore.

If you have a choice, don't do this. It was by far the most humiliating and degrading experience of my life. You will be punished for anything "unhealthy," which includes crying (that got me a hypodermic of Thorazine waved in my face and a night in the Isolation Room (it had a more newspeakish name which escapes me at the moment), with no windows, no bed, no furniture, and no inside handle on the door), swearing, making negative comments about the weather, etc. You will be played expertly against your fellow patients in a in a Stanford Prison Experiment sort of way. You will not like it and it will not help you. (Keep in mind that this advice is based on my experience in a private, very expensive, very "progressive" institution -- it's only downhill from here.)

If you do go, forget your assertiveness. Any disagreement, on any issue, however reasoned, will be considered a "symptom." Your life will be much easier if you act like a whipped dog. Swallow your pride; it won't do you any good.

One important thing to remember is that you have many rights which you will not receive unless you demand them; most important is the right to refuse any medication, except "emergency" medication (i.e., tranquilizers like Thorazine if you're being "disruptive"). You are not obligated to follow the presciptions given you in the hospital.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 11:36 PM on February 3, 2005

On seeing your last question: whom you are allowed to see depends on the institution, the doctor assigned to you, etc.

At 21, you should be able to keep anyone and everyone from visiting you, including relatives.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 11:39 PM on February 3, 2005

e-mail in my profile.
posted by TimeFactor at 11:44 PM on February 3, 2005

Just to reiterate how bad an idea this is: my highly unstable roommate tried to kill me, for no reason that I could ever ascertain, crushing my windpipe until I began to black out. The staff (both the orderlies and the psychiatrist assigned to me) laughed, refused to assign me a new roommate, and told me that this was symptomatic of my failure to socialize properly. To a shrink, everything is a symptom; outside events do not exist. Once again, this was in the upper tier of mental institutions.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 11:45 PM on February 3, 2005

honeydew, also email me (see my profile page) if you wish. This is not for further info on the question asked, but I have a good friend who is a lawyer (and a wonderful person) in New Orleans (where I used to live). It could be useful to have his number jotted down in case you need an advocate for any reason.
posted by taz at 12:57 AM on February 4, 2005

I know someone close to me who went through something similar here in the UK.

The food will be lousy - try to get your visitors to bring you fresh fruit as you'll be craving it after a few days. You may find the experience intrusive at first as you are checked upon constantly - even when you are sleeping. You may feel a bit spaced-out if they put you on new medication as the dosage levels are not an exact science.

If it's any comfort the person I know came out the other end improved 100% and really benefited from the experience. Don't panic.
posted by john-paul at 1:55 AM on February 4, 2005

It's good you don't smoke. Most US hospitals are non-smoking. The facilities i've worked at usually allow "stable" patients to go to a smoking area (in a group, with escorts) three times a day.. once after breakfast and once after lunch and once after supper, for a half hour recreation period.

Hang in there, get "tuned up", and be safe, ok? Boredom is a good sign, btw.. that means you are able to focus on your immediate circumstances.
posted by reflecked at 3:44 AM on February 4, 2005

I have no experience with this, but if you don't feel comfortable going in, you absolutely shouldn't go. At the very least, make certain that you have a way out. Can you get a second opinion from another doctor?

What hasn't been discussed: If you're grappling with suicidal thoughts, you clearly need to get some help. The fact that you've gone to a doctor already and are seeking help here is, I think, a good sign.

And like everyone else here, I wish you all the best. Know that you're not alone in feeling this way and that it is possible - even likely - that things will get better.
posted by aladfar at 4:01 AM on February 4, 2005

I would strongly recommend that you at least try to call the institution if you haven't already. This seems like the most direct way to find out what their policies actually are. If there's some reason you're not comfortable with this, get someone else to call for you. Your questions are entirely reasonable and you're entitled to answers.
posted by teleskiving at 5:13 AM on February 4, 2005

If you'd like a fellow MeFite to visit you, I'll be in New Orleans myslef mid-March. Email is dmarti21-at-gmail-dot-com. If you don't have computer access, maybe I can bring some synopsis of the chatter around here.
posted by forforf at 6:53 AM on February 4, 2005

Do you know where you are checking into? Do you have insurance? Is it Charity (the hospital in NO, it's free, can be a little gnarly and they might try to get you out before you've had enough help.)?

Take it one day at a time as much as possible and get the number of that lawyer, get someone to go with you to the intake if you can and ask questions for you, so there is someone on the outside that knows the deal for you and when you can have visits and can ask how long you are in for. Even voluntary is based on a number of days and a review, , especially if you are keeping your parents out.

I would tell you boss and profs that you are seeking treatment for a medical condition and will be away for an indefinite amount of time and will check in as soon as you are able.

Be cool darlin, you'll be allright in the end.
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:54 AM on February 4, 2005

Honeydew, all that you need to tell anyone is that you are sick and you will be in the hospital. Your school should have an office that deals with this issue often - find them and they can take care of notifying your professors.
posted by Coffeemate at 6:54 AM on February 4, 2005

You tell the people at work that you are checking in to the hospital for an evaluation or something and other than that it is probably not their business. You can estimate the amount of time you'lll be gone [a week/ten days optimistically?] and say that you'll be in touch. Bring their phone numbers/contact info so that you can update them. If you have a trusted friend at work or school, let them know what's going on so they can be a contact on the outside. Since you're over 18 you probably have the right to not have your parents involved with your treatment, but again you need to check this out beforehand.

The previous thread that might help is this one.
posted by jessamyn at 7:02 AM on February 4, 2005

Ack, the 's' word. That's why my ex was in, and her ward was for depressives and suicidals. It was the most restrictive ward in terms of allowed items and actions, for those who could walk anyway.

I highly urge you to call the hospital and ask what you can bring and about your routine. I assume that if all your doctor said was clothes and books, that's all he expects you to bring.

How long you will stay and what they will do is up to your doctor.
posted by mischief at 7:56 AM on February 4, 2005

1)You never need to explain to a professor, a friend or a boss why you are hospitalized, nor should you have to! It's not anyone's business

2)A lot of great, highly functional people I know have been hospitalized for depression and mania, and most have been released in a few days.

3)People who work in these places understand that you are sick, and they are great at excepting you as person with a short term illness. Some patients might freak you out, but most are just normal people suffering from manageable diseases.

Two of the nicest people at my hospital are nurses in the psych ward, and my favorite colleague is a frequent patient. I don't want to negate anyone's painful experiences, but I feel some responsibility to allay a few fears.

When I have reason to visit the ward in my hospital, I am struck by how unfrightening it is. Some people have really terrible experiences, and granted, not all hospitals are equal. But my friends who have been hosptialized report a lack of drama.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 8:15 AM on February 4, 2005

Set up a pen-pal now, before you go in.

I suppose it doesn't even have to be a real one. Just somewhere where you can send letters with your thoughts in them.
posted by icey at 8:31 AM on February 4, 2005

A friend spent a few days inside not too long ago. She had to find stuff to do to keep from getting bored. She had to get permission to go outside to smoke. She did group therapy sessions. She asked me to send her flowers (I'm a total numbnuts for not thinking of this myself). She helped out around the ward; putting up bulletin boards and stuff. She was eager to get out.
posted by Clay201 at 8:32 AM on February 4, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks all. Still scared shitless but with a better idea of what's going on.
posted by honeydew at 8:40 AM on February 4, 2005

They may nix the markers as well, since they can be easily snatched away from you and used to jab.
posted by mischief at 9:17 AM on February 4, 2005

As I recall, as well, my exwife's treatment seemed to be of the nature: tear completely down and rebuild from scratch. I hope you do not need the same. Hang in there, you'll make it.
posted by mischief at 9:19 AM on February 4, 2005

We'll be thinking of you, honeydew.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 10:08 AM on February 4, 2005

The organization I work at runs a mental health hospital, and I have a nephew who is bipolar. Two thoughts:

The staff at the hospital will want you to get well. They'll be interested in what they think will help you, long-term. Yes, there will be rules; yes, it may be boring (but see all the great suggestions above), and yes, the food probably won't be really tasty, but it should be healthy. So if you work with the staff, you'll be out of the hospital as soon as is reasonable. (And the way that insurance and other funding for mental health is structured these days, there is relatively little likelihood that the hospital has any incentive to keep you beyond the point where you are ready to leave.)

An astonishingly high percentage of people in the US suffer from some sort of mental health problem during their life - something on the order of 10 to 20 percent, I think. Many of them never get any help. Being in a mental health hospital means trying to dela with a problem that is, essentially, no different than having heart or kidney or leg problems, except that it's your brain that isn't working as well as it could. A lot of the reason for being in a hospital is to find out what medications work for you; medications change brain chemistry.

Along with everyone here, I wish you the best. Maybe when you're back, put a note in your profile, yes?
posted by WestCoaster at 1:59 PM on February 4, 2005

both of my college roommates were in and out of various "wards" all through college--each time each went in, we were never sure how long they'd be gone. because they were voluntary committals, at any point, both could have simply checked out and gone home. had the intake nurse felt it was dangerous to allow him or her to go home, she would have issued a 24-hour hold during which there would have been an involuntary committal hearing to determine whether or not the "patient was a threat to self or others" and could be held involuntarily. that never happened with either of them, incidentally. but your doctor may simply not know how long you'll need to be there.

each time, we simply informed professors that they were in the hospital.

both were uncomfortable by the proximity to other patients and really hated the lack of privacy and personal space. both read a lot. someone visited once or twice a week with a changeout of books/clothes/tea bags. also, we had a couple cheap portable tape players and lots and lots of mix tapes (no portable cd players because of the risk of theft). extra toiletries, particularly handlotion and chapstick, are a good idea. a sleep mask and ear plugs, too. institutions always seem to have very dry air in them and are always noisy.

neither was ever in a very restricted ward, so they were allowed pens, pencils, shoelaces.

it's a bit scary to think of, but it's mostly just dull. so what everyone else has said: bring light reading and maybe some schoolwork. Arrange to have someone visit you at least twice a week, to see if you need anything, and to give you some sense that the world isn't passing you by.

good luck.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:57 PM on February 4, 2005

HoneyDew--I am the Executive Director Community Mental Health Center in Ohio and have been in the field for 30 years. Some of what was said is right on some inaccurate or unnecessarily frightening--Most inpatient programs are short term with an average stay of 5-9 days. a residential treatment program will be longer (however they are quite unusual unless you are independently wealthy, have excellent insurance , are a minor or have diagnosed substance abuse problem)--regardless of what has been said the focus will be on assuring your safety and observing your reaction(s) to the medication plan--no one is cured of a mental illness in 5-7 days--crises may be resolved but all recovery takes time and effort. I think the advice to immediately secure an attorney is unwarranted--it sounds as if your admission is planned and voluntary--trouser me--they will want you discharged as soon as possible--the stay will only become involuntary if you present a clear and present danger to self or others and/or refuse medication. Refusing medication in the absence of imminent danger is not a criterion for involuntary hospitalization in any state. No one can tell you exactly exactly when you will be discharged as it is a medical decision based on how you feel and how you respond to the medication--My advice--make sure you are confident that physical causes have been ruled out, be completely honest regarding your symptoms, history and drug/alcohol use., feel free to ask any questions you feel appropriate,, don't fight the rules (they probably will not change them for you--right or wrong they have a reason for them), encourage visitors--and above all--mental illness is a disease like any other disease and is characterized by biochemical imbalances. Take Care--you can write me a rmhsinc at clara dot co dot uk --yes I do live in ohio but consult and travel in the UK Frank
posted by rmhsinc at 3:28 PM on February 4, 2005

I have a friend who's been to the mental hospital several times in the past few years, each for a short stay (1 or 2 weeks). It helped him each time. Best of luck.
posted by Tlogmer at 9:31 AM on February 5, 2005

Just poking my head 'round the door to say good luck as well -- like some other folks here, I know someone with severe depression who was helped by a brief hospitalization. Let us know how it goes.
posted by scody at 3:24 PM on February 5, 2005

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