Time in the loony bin – or to put it more politely, the psych ward – is not an easy experience.
I look at this issue from 2 quite different perspectives; I’m a mental health nurse and have worked on an inpatient psychiatric ward, but I also have major depressive disorder and have been hospitalized 4 times. The first two each lasted 2 months, and the others were each for 3 weeks. Only one was voluntary; the other three, I was committed involuntarily. I still feel traumatized by many of my experiences in hospital, and the years that have passed since my last loony bin stay have made me even more certain that it should never have had to be that way.
Because of what I’ve experienced, I highly doubt I will ever again go to hospital voluntarily. On multiple occasions, I’ve resorted to lying to my doctors to avoid being committed. I doubt I’m the only one who feels this way, which points to systemic problems in inpatient psychiatric care.
My first hospitalization seemed like one long fight with the treatment team. This earned me a diagnosis of borderline personality traits, an inaccurate label that is sadly reflective of the tendency of some health professionals to view patients who are “difficult” as having a personality disorder. I developed a romantic connection with another patient on the ward, and while I can see why they didn’t react well to walking in on us getting it on in the bathroom (hey, desperate times call for desperate measures), it just kept getting ratcheted up to new levels of ridiculousness.
Staff imposed a “5-foot-rule”, meaning we couldn’t be within 5 feet of each other in common areas. Sometimes, they expanded that rule to not being in the same room together. It really shouldn’t be surprising that when you treat someone like a child, they’ll react by behaving like a child. Yet I continue to see this sort of thing on a disappointingly regular basis in the context of my work. In my case, the childish behaviour manifested as hostility, swearing, screaming, and temper tantrums.
My most recent hospital stay
During my last hospitalization, when I was first transferred from the medical emergency to the psych emergency ward, the doctor had ordered my regular meds to be held for a day to give time for the pills I’d overdosed on to clear from my system. Except no one bothered to tell me this. I had a complete shit fit at the night nurse. “How the fuck am I supposed to get better if you don’t give me my fucking meds?”
The next day I applied for a review panel to challenge my involuntary committal. After the panel detained me, I remember leaving an angry message for my community psychiatrist: “I’m stuck in this hellhole until whenever the fuck they decide to let me go.” How very therapeutic.
There I was, locked on a ward, being treated by a psychiatrist I didn’t trust and nurses with questionable competence (like the one who thought I was depressed because I was single, or the one who was annoyed I wouldn’t tell her what I was angry about, since if I attempted suicide, I must be angry about something).
I wasn’t allowed to have my cellphone, which would have been a lifeline to my social support network. Staff regularly chided me for not attending groups, as if baking muffins with my co-patients would be some great panacea. The screaming, temper tantrums, and other childish behaviours continued to pop up as, over and over again, I was treated like a child. I felt more and more trapped in a loony bin that was feeling like a prison.
Loss of autonomy
The nurse side of me gets that sometimes involuntary treatment is the only way to keep people safe. On rare occasions, practices like seclusion and restraint are also necessary for safety. I’ve seen people respond very, very well to treatment they never would have gotten voluntarily. However, I think that all too often, a shift in perspective is called for so that these restrictive types of interventions are used only when absolutely necessary rather than as a first-line approach to care.
An important ethical issue at play here is the conflicting principles of paternalism and autonomy. The importance placed on each varies depending on many factors, including the situation and cultural norms. In general, autonomy is seen as quite important in Western cultures, with some notable exceptions. Medicine has traditionally been a field in which a paternalistic doctor-knows-best point of view has been considered acceptable. This has started to shift, as it’s become easier for patients to inform themselves rather than relying solely on a doctor for information.
The field of psychiatry has been slower to come around, and there are a number of reasons for that. Mental illness may cause”anosognosia“, or lack of insight into one’s own condition. Mental illness may also impact judgment, making it harder to make reasoned, informed decisions about treatment. This is part of why there are laws that allow for involuntary committal to hospital.
That’s fine. But the ethical reasoning process should not stop there. By stripping away a patient’s autonomy and forcing the treatment provider’s choices upon them, the treatment team is undercutting what many would consider a basic human right. This can cause harm, and it can cause trauma. When I screamed and swore and fought (figuratively, not literally) against the hospital treatment providers, it was because I felt like my dignity was being stripped away. I did not feel helped, supported, or understood; I felt degraded. How is that conducive to effective treatment?
First do no harm
Two more ethical issues that are relevant to psychiatric hospitalization are beneficence (do good) and nonmaleficence (do no harm). I honestly think that most treatment providers believe they’re doing good by imposing restrictions, but the ethical reasoning process shouldn’t stop there. How often is that next step happening, to consider what harm might be done by practices such as involuntary treatment, seclusion, and restraint?
Did any of the health professionals who treated me consider how traumatizing the experience was for me? I may be biased, but I doubt it. What I have seen in my own professional practice tends to back that up. There is too often a sort of arrogant righteousness in those who believe they know what’s best for their patients.
There are ways to impose desperately needed treatment and still promote patient autonomy. Treating people with respect, compassion, and empathy, and valuing their dignity, can go a long way in making psychiatric hospitalization a more therapeutic experience. Making sure that patients feel heard, and that they have at least some input into their treatment plan. If I could have sent a postcard to those who treated me, it would say “imagine how you would feel if you were the patient”. It’s only by speaking up and sharing our experiences that the tide can slowly start to shift.
The Tales from the Psych Ward series covers a more recent hospitalization.