The Truth About Psych Units, Part II

The Truth About Psych Units, Part II

I hope my last post didn’t scare you away from taking action. That was certainly not my intention!

In all honesty, admitting myself to the psych unit has saved my life at least a few times. And they’ve all kept me safe.

Part I of this series was just a (very) general overview of the state of psychiatric units. It was meant to be educational, not scary. Yet, I can’t help but feel like I may have gotten a little on the negative side. So, for this post, while giving you more details, I will do my best to stay positive. Or at least neutral. 🙂

THE NAKED TRUTH

**Disclaimer: Please remember that this is all based on my own experiences being hospitalized fifteen times, almost exclusively between 2003 – 2015. I may be an expert on my own mental health, but I am not a professional medical person.**

So here’s the deal. Let’s say you are admitted to the psych unit of a public hospital because you’re super-depressed and can’t guarantee your own safety. You waited however long in the psych ER (“holding tank”) and they have finally found a bed for you close by.

Depending on where you go, you might be strip-searched. Personally, I could do without this part of the process, but I understand why they do it.

I think that, out of all the times I’ve been admitted, only two places did this.

Obviously, they do it in a private room, with two staff people present. If you’re a male, you will be working with men. If you’re a woman, you’ll be with women.

The last place I was at (my preferred unit because they actually pay attention to you) gave me one of those hospital robes to at least cover up with (if only temporarily). And yes, they make you squat. (Hey, they’ve seen it all.)

When you’re in your birthday suit, they don’t really need to frisk you, so that’s good. The whole thing only takes a minute or two.

CONTRABAND?

Of course, if you’re like me and you come prepared with a bag of clothing, a book, a notepad, and a toothbrush, they go through it with a fine-toothed comb to make sure you aren’t bringing in any contraband – ie., anything sharp, anything with string (wired headphones/earbuds, shoelaces, the thing in the waistband of your sweats or pajama pants that keeps them from falling down, etc.) or anything at all that *could* be used to harm yourself or someone else.

I know that most units won’t even allow you to bring dental floss – because somewhere, not all that long ago, someone found a way to hurt themselves with it.

The places I’ve been to do not allow you to bring your own pillow (you could stuff something in it) or even a stuffed animal. No mouthwash, no toothpaste, no denture cream, no tweezers, nothing that could possibly be used to either hurt you (or someone else) or hide contraband.

A lot of places will allow you to bring in things like makeup or even a curling iron – but they keep them in your locker and you have to ask to use them, and you pretty much have to use them where staff can see you. They don’t want anyone poking their eye out with the tweezers!

(I shouldn’t joke about that. It’s probably happened.)

I know, it sounds kind of militaristic. But everything they do is for the safety of all the patients, and we can be a crafty bunch. Their main job is to keep you safe.

For example, June of 2015 was a really bad time for me, so I went to a psych unit. One night, I was very angry about something, so I spent about half an hour pacing back and forth in the hallway (33 laps around equals one mile).

At some point, I picked up a pen that was lying on the front desk (which probably shouldn’t have been – sharp objects, ya know). I started pacing again and, as I was walking away from the desk, I broke the pen in half. Just to get some aggression out.

Within about two seconds flat, Gina, one of the psych techs, came up behind me and told me – firmly – to give her the pen. (Damn cameras!)

I wasn’t going to do any harm with it, to myself or her or anyone else. But she couldn’t be sure of that, and a rule is a rule in these places. So I handed it over, we talked for a minute or two, and I went back to my pacing.

Generally, the staffs at these places are aware of everything going on, whether you realize it or not. And as irritating as that sometimes is, it’s probably a good thing.

WARDROBE MALFUNCTIONS

Before I forget to tell you, many units have a small area with just a few rooms for newcomers. They are even more sparse than the general rooms; like, there’s just you and the bed. You generally start off in one of these rooms if you’re a threat to yourself or if you’re psychotic. They don’t put you with the “general population” until you require less supervision.

Oh, and the best part? They give you these adorable (NOT!) scrubs to wear that are branded with “BH” on them, announcing to everyone (should you escape) that you’re a Behavioral Health patient. (Or maybe “MH” for Mental Health.) At my preferred unit, they’re this weird rusty-persimmony color. Unmistakable, if you’re running through the lobby of a hospital.

My experience has been that you are only required to wear these until you move to the “general population” unit. (Some places call it the “step-down” unit.) They come in three sizes – too small for most, “average”, and so big you have to keep pulling the pants up, lest they fall down around your ankles.

You’re welcome to wear them on the general unit if you want, too, although, at some point, the staff does like it when you start acting like a regular person again and wear your own clothes (if you have any). They do make decent-enough pajamas, though they are kind of stiff.

Every unit I’ve ever been in has a washer and dryer for patients to use. Some people only come in with the clothes on their backs, and if they don’t have any visitors, that’s all they’ve got. Granted, laundry is rarely fun, but it is sometimes necessary. 😉

“THREE HOTS AND A COT”

Generally a term used to describe time in a jail or prison, you do get “three hots and a cot” in psych units (three hot meals and a place to sleep). That’s more than a lot of mentally ill people get, for a variety of reasons.

Speaking of food, you may be going on the assumption that hospital food sucks. All I can say to that is, it depends on where you are.

The place I’ve been in the most times has really good food. My preferred psych unit (in a different hospital, but part of the same system) does not have really good food. It’s decent, but I would say that even I could do it better (mostly).

Every morning, you fill out your menu for the next day. And surprisingly, they have a large number of choices – unless you’re on a special diet, like low carb, low fat, etc. as determined by the medical person you meet with soon after arrival or some other medical condition, like diabetes or high blood pressure.

And here’s a tip if you should ever find yourself in a psych unit: a lot of them have meals available that are not on the menu (just like at a restaurant). Make friends with the ladies (they’re almost always ladies) at the front desk and ask if there is such a thing on your unit.

If you forget to fill out your menu, the kitchen will send up a general meal. Like a hamburger and fries for lunch, or scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast for breakfast. If you don’t like it, make sure you fill out your menu next time!

I think every place I’ve been in has had one or two times during the day that are designated for snack time. What they have available is, of course, totally dependent on where you are, and some are more fun than others. You may be able to make a PBJ sandwich (on wheat) or get one of those small ice cream cups, or they may just have little packets of graham crackers and juice cups. Sometimes, they’ll make popcorn for a special treat.

Also, most places will allow your visitors to bring snacks in for you (after they’re double-checked for safety reasons), including pop. I find that it’s best to bring a big bag of something that I can share with the others. You don’t have to become friends with everyone, but you do want to be respected and it’s never a good idea to appear greedy.

A PIECE OF ADVICE

Should you find yourself in a psych unit (or another kind of “more restrictive” place), I’ll send you peaceful thoughts and compassion. I know it means you’re having a very difficult time and feel desperate. They’re not necessarily terrible places, but it still sucks.

Now, this may go without saying, but the staff will probably suggest that you never give your phone number to another patient.

Yes, the vast majority of patients you’ll meet there are “normal, everyday folk” – just like you – but overall, it’s just not a good place to meet your new BFF, or a boyfriend or girlfriend. It reminds me of two alcoholics meeting in a bar, falling in love, and having a tumultuous, enabling life together.

You just never know.

I’m not trying to insult anyone here. After all, I am one of those patients! And no, I have never given out my phone number. I think I’ve given one or two people my email address, but thankfully, no one’s ever used it. I mean, come on – as a rule, psych patients are not the most stable people on earth.

And besides, part of the idea of being hospitalized is to be able to focus on yourself – your emotional goals, self-care (both identifying your needs and how to meet them), building a support team, etc. Not hooking up.

Good Lord, I could go on for days about what to expect in a psych unit! Maybe I’ll have to do a Part III…

With the Keepin’ it Real blog, I like to think that I’m helping reduce the stigma of mental illness and addiction. I don’t know if this post and the last have helped do this or not.

All I know is that I have almost always felt safer and less depressed upon discharge from a psych unit. So, they must be doing something right.

THE LAST WORD

If you need help, if you feel like you may be a danger to yourself or someone else, if your behavior is erratic, unpredictable, and in some way unhealthy, it’s okay to get help. In fact, it’s your obligation to yourself to get help.

Do what you can with what you have. Take care of you. Let me put it this way: If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else – like your kids or your aging parents or your ailing significant other, or even your cat or dog or ferret.

Talk to someone you trust. Call your doctor. Call a crisis line. Call your county’s mental health services department. If you feel like hurting yourself, ask someone to take you to the nearest hospital. For God’s sake, call 911 if you have to! CeAnne has had to do that on me a few times, and though it damages the ego a bit, it has helped keep me alive.

Do what you need to so you can be an effective human being and live a life worth living.

And always Keep it Real.

 

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