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5 Things No One Tells You About the Psych Ward

You’ve seen movies like Girl, Interrupted, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shutter Island, and 12 Monkey. So, you’ve probably formed some ideas about what psych wards are like. And, these ideas are probably not-so-accurate. After attempting suicide, I landed in the psych ward and learned a few things. Here are 5 things no one tells you about the psych ward.

#1. It’s somewhat “normal” for addicts to have gone to the psych ward

Hollywood has probably done the public a disservice as far as how psych wards are depicted in movies. Don’t get me wrong, these places generally are not somewhere you want to be, although, the people who end up here do generally realize that they need the help. There are seriously ill people in the psych ward as well as people “like us.”

When I was in the mental ward of my town’s hospital, I was *lucky* enough to have a roommate who was like me – a normal type of crazy, not, soil-yourself-and-the-common-area-furniture type of crazy. She was a young lawyer who had checked herself into the psych ward because she thought she was going crazy (turns out, she’s alcoholic). It’s quite common for alcoholics and addicts to have spent time in the psych ward before they get clean and sober. That’s why it’s said: “We are people in the grip of a continuing and progressive illness whose ends are always the same: jails, institutions, and death” – where “institutions” includes psych wards and mental hospitals.

#2. You might be there for more than three days

Regardless of whether you sign yourself in voluntarily or you are ordered to go to the psych ward, most hospitals can hold you for 72 hours for psych-related reasons without your permission. Even if you’re truly OK, the hospital needs to ensure that you aren’t going to leave and immediately have some kind of “episode.”

After three days in a psych ward, you can leave … if the doctors say you can leave. That is, it’s at the doctors’ discretion after evaluating you, whether you can leave.

#3. It’s not long-term  

Despite the movie depictions, and also because healthcare and especially mental healthcare has changed so much, psych wards are not the long-term institutions they used to be. The mental hospitals of the cinema are filled with people who are clearly just “eccentric” – being held against their will, either planning their escape or manipulating the system as best they can in order to get “released.” All this is good news because, upon entering, all of your personal belongings are confiscated.

#4. It’s not a detox

As mentioned in #1, we alcoholics and addicts often end up in a psych ward at some point in our active addiction. Sometimes, it is our only recourse for getting some relief and help, especially when it comes to dealing with withdrawal symptoms. Although the psych ward is not the same thing as a detox, oftentimes a hospital’s chemical dependency ward is part of the same program as the mental ward.

#5. You’re diagnosis might change

There are two main things to consider here. One is that navigating the brain – how it works and how it “malfunctions” – is not an exact science.One of the most frustrating things about a serious mental illness is that you (and the doctor) almost can’t know exactly what’s going on. Your brain changes as you age, so it’s possible for your disorders to evolve. Since the doctors can’t be 100% sure what’s wrong, they can’t be sure that the treatment is going to work.

The second thing to keep in mind is this: if you are diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder in the midst of your active addiction or even within 6 months of last drug use, your diagnosis might be wrong.

This is because drugs affect the brain in such a profound way that we can start displaying behaviors and thought patterns that mimic a mental illness. It isn’t until we get clean and sober and stay sober for a period of time that we can be sure whether a diagnosis is accurate. Many times, people in recovery who, at one time were diagnosed with a mood disorder, realize that it simply isn’t the case.

While I was in the psych ward, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And no doubt, I was certainly acting like someone with the disorder. I was obviously depressed and, now, as the cocktail of drugs I had taken with the purpose of overdosing was clearing my system, I was becoming more and more manic; I was displaying racing thoughts and speech and experiencing a racing heartbeat. So, for years, I thought I had bipolar disorder when it was really chronic depression. It wasn’t until I went to treatment and got some clean time under my belt that I realized this.

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135.





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