Life in a Psychiatric Hospital - Part 4

Group is a regular part of every day in a psych ward. The type of groups may differ between facilities, but they are invaluable to the patients and to the caretakers.

Facilities have different rules on expected behavior. Ridgeview required me to attend all groups in order to get the privilege of dining in the mess hall. Those that avoided group, got their food delivered to the ward in a styrofoam box. At St. Joseph, food was delivered to the unit so there was no real penalty if you did not attend group, but, since group is a primary method for determining a person’s readiness to leave, attendance is a good idea if you want to get past the locked door at the front of the building.

Most of us went to group begrudgingly. If nothing else, it passed the time. Also, the staff turned off the television during group time.

Looking back, I would say that Ridgeview’s groups were focused on everyday life skills, and St. Joseph’s groups were focused on communication and interpersonal skills.

Behold! My awesome hot plate!

Behold! My awesome hot plate!

I definitely enjoyed group more at St. Josephs, because they were more fun.

Reminiscent of a kindergarten class. Feel like coloring? Go color! Want to play with blocks? We have all the blocks! I even learned to grout and made my own hot plate over a three day period.

At this point, some readers may be wondering, “Really? Coloring books? This is supposed to make you better?” No. Group does not make a person better. It facilitates recovery because human beings are social creatures.

Isolation can destroy a person. Ask any prisoner who has spent time in solitary. Or, just watch this video about Harry Harlow’s Pit of Despair experiments with rhesus monkeys:

Now, I am an introvert’s introvert. I find nothing more enjoyable than reading a book on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and never saying a word to anyone for the entire day. That said, I am human, and I do not do well with extended periods of isolation. No one does.

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Group, in the context of psychiatric care, establishes a place where someone with a frayed mind can get their bearings under controlled circumstances. The depressed person who cannot speak can, at least, listen.

The person coming down from a manic episode can ease out of it with people who won’t judge. The addict who just got through the worsts of withdrawal can talk about their experiences.

The hospital is not real life, and group allows for an approximation of life. As such, it gives insight into a person’s state of mind around other people that is objectively measurable by those providing care.

For instance, for the two days that I avoided group entirely and stayed in my bed, I was not ready to leave the hospital. Because I likely would have gone home, got into bed, and avoided my life. But, oh how a nurse’s face lights up when you walk out of your room and sit down in group! Even if you do not say anything, your presence shows a willingness to engage with others.

Group is a means to an end. It gives patients the opportunity to experience time with people in a controlled setting. Combined with daily therapy, consistent medication, a good diet, and sleep, the whole treatment becomes greater than the sum of it’s parts. It is a staggeringly simple idea, but that is why it works. Put a human being in varied, yet safe, social situations and give them time to learn how to exist with others.

Life in a Psychiatric Hospital - Part 1

There is a common misconception that a psychiatric hospital will be eerily similar to “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest". Uncompromising doctors treating crazy patients with a strong helping of electroshock therapy and powerful antipsychotic medication. Such were my preconceptions of what was an underwhelming, boring, but ultimately helpful experience.

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On July 5th, 2011 I voluntarily checked myself into the Ridgeview Institute after my hanging attempt. At intake I answered a myriad of medical and personal history questions in triplicate, was interviewed about my most recent mental health problems, given an ID wristband, and led behind the first of many locked doors in the complex. 

An orderly brought me into Cottage C, which specialized in addiction recovery and mental health issues consisting of depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. From intake I was sat down, got my blood pressure and temperature taken, then told to wait for a staff member to search me and inventory my belongings.

After thirty minutes of people watching, which is very amusing on a psychiatric ward, a nurse ushered me into a very utilitarian office where all of my belongings were searched. Even the clothes I wore were searched for contraband or possible weapons or tools I could use to harm myself. 

After the search I was fed a rather delicious meal of fried fish and vegetables, and then a nurse showed me to my bedroom where I met my roommate. A very polite older gentleman there for treatment of his severe alcoholism. Once I saw the bed, I laid down and tried to rest because I had not slept well since my suicide attempt three nights earlier.

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I was on a fifteen minute bed check, which meant that every quarter of an hour a nurse came into my room with her smartphone as a flashlight to check that I was still breathing.

You may think that is a little much, but it is essential for someone not far removed from a suicide attempt. The bed checks also establish a regular pattern for a shattered mind to recognize and accept.

My mind was in utter chaos, and knowing a nurse would check in on me every fifteen minutes was oddly comforting.