Tonight I’m sad.

Tonight I read someone saying that when people are in the hospital for mental illness, their loved ones shouldn’t come visit every day or bring them things they like.  That would just encourage them to wind up in the hospital over and over again.

It makes me sad that that’s still such a prevalent view of people with a mental illness.

People like to say that there’s far less stigma against people with mental illnesses these days.  People say mental illnesses are just the same as physical issues, just as real and valid.  Ad campaigns tell us that people with mental illnesses are all around, that it’s not their fault their brains are broken.  But these same people turn around and treat us like we’re manipulative and attention-seeking, trying to coerce care and attention from the people closest to us..  I’m sure most people don’t do it out of malice, but it’s still hurtful and damaging to us.

I think people who’ve never been hospitalized on a psych unit don’t have a clear idea of what it’s like.  Most people know psychiatric treatment is no longer like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is true.  They think it’s more like a vacation where we don’t have to go to work or clean or cook or worry about anything, which is untrue.

It’s not fun, and it’s not an escape from our everyday lives.  We don’t have maids and room service.  We’re medicated, fed, and kept alive–that’s about the extent of “treatment” at most places.  Most of the time, you just sit there.  Not on a beach or by a pool.  It’s usually a day room with fluorescent lights, grubby tiled floors, vinyl furniture (often bolted to the ground), and games and puzzles missing at least half of their pieces.  If you’re lucky, there might be a cheap romance novel or a cooking magazine from seven years ago.  You sit there, day after day, doing almost nothing.  Mostly, you’re ignored unless you’re trying to hurt yourself or someone else.  No one cares if you’re crying–they probably don’t even notice.  You’re treated as something less than a person.

I know many people who have been hospitalized for mental illness, including myself.  None of us liked it or wanted to go back.  We end up in hospitals because there’s nowhere else for us to turn, not because it gets us showered with love and attention.

Yes, I looked forward to visits when I was hospitalized.  It was usually the only real conversation I got in a day.  In a place where you’re treated as a bundle of symptoms or as a problem instead of as a person, you get desperate for human connections.  That’s certainly not exclusive to people with mental illnesses.

Yes, I looked forward to small treats when I was in the hospital.  For me, it was usually a Diet Coke.  I was in a foreign environment where I had no comforts and no control over my life.  Something as inconsequential as a bottle of Diet Coke reminded me that the real world was still out there and I wasn’t cut off from it forever.  When you can’t go outside, can’t open a window, can’t make a phone call, can’t do anything else to feel connected to that outside world, you need those little things that remind you that you still exist.  Isn’t connection to reality usually a treatment goal?

I wish that people would put themselves in the position of the person in their life who’s living with a mental illness.  Ask yourself what you would want if you were separated from your home, your family, your friends, and everything else in your daily life.  How would you feel?  How would you want people to treat you?  Would you want to be isolated and denied connection, or would you want the people you love to do what they can to stay connected?  Put yourself in our shoes.  There’s really no difference between us and you.



September 22, 2013 · 3:29 am

5 responses to “

  1. The idea that all expressions of mental distress are in some way intentional and purposeful seems to me part of the old Freudian ideas, which all implied that we have a great deal more control over our brains than we really have. I think it’s a perspective that has done a lot of damage. It seems pretty obvious that human contact is protective and allows people to cope better with nearly any kind of distress–mental or otherwise. When we can, we should try to offer it to people having a hard time–whether they are psychotic or displaced by earthquake damage. It is the simplest way you can help with anything to just give company and express caring. It doesn’t fix problems, but it can help people get in a better position keep going with fixing their own problems. My mother was hospitalized a few times when I was little. The staff actually seemed very nice, but it really is a pretty bleak place. I remember it well.

    • I think you said it much more clearly than I did. 🙂 I’m usually good with words, but when I start feeling things, I get less clear. I’ve been writing this in my head all day, and it still wasn’t as clear as I’d like.

      I think human connection is really the only hope we having of healing many problems in the world. Without connection and regard for each other as people, we can’t come up with lasting solutions or improvements.

  2. Cat

    That’s a ridiculous idea…

  3. I’ve always visited my husband every day he was hospitalized (somewhere around 27 times). Often I was exhausted from working long hours and from taking care of everything at home but I also thought about the main focus being on getting him well and able to cope with life. I tried to show up each day with something that might cheer him up a little and give him a moment to know that I was cheering him on and I understood that he was where he had to be at that particular point in time. Excellent post, Hope.

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