I recently saw a tweet about the issue of cell phones on psych wards, and it stirred up a strong reaction for me. A man was writing about how he’d been advocating for his child to be able to have their cell phone on the psych ward, but this was flatly denied due to their no cell phones on the ward policy. As a result, the child was very much disconnected from their social support network.
During my last hospitalization, the ward had a no cell phones policy, and they wouldn’t budge at all on that. I was an involuntary patient, so I had no choice in the matter. It made me feel even more isolated than I already was, and talking on the phone in the common area with no privacy was not the least bit appealing. I remember at one point calling my community psychiatrist from the patient phone and leaving a voicemail yelling “I’m stuck in this f*cking hellhole as long as they want to keep me here!” That kind of thing is really better done in private.
When I used to work as a nurse on an inpatient unit, I don’t recall us having a general rule about cellphones. Then again, that was before cell phones became as omnipresent as they are now. We would sometimes take a phone away if, for example, a manic patient was being disruptive by calling people at 3 in the morning, but it was a case by case decision.
Access to support
I believe that one of the arguments made against cell phones relates to the camera function. I’m not convinced, though, that this is sufficient grounds for an across the board ban. I completely agree that in some cases it’s not appropriate for certain patients to have access to their phones because of the particular symptoms of illness they’re having at that time. Still, I don’t think that should mean that everyone else has to miss out on access to their support network.
For many of us, having access to our phones is an essential way to connect with our main support people. Limiting us to talking on the patient phone in front of everyone else significantly impacts the ability to connect to that support network. The blogging and social media communities can be really important sources of support, and they’re generally inaccessible on a hospital ward without having the use of a smartphone.
I think blanket bans on cell phone use demonstrate laziness by hospital staff. It’s a lot easier to just say no to everyone than to make reasoned, well thought out decisions about what specific patients should not have their phones because of their illness symptoms, and to have to answer questions about those decisions. I think it also comes down to a culture of having rules for the sake of imposing control. Forget what’s therapeutic or not; far too often the focus is on establishing a clear hierarchical divide between staff and patient.
As a nurse, this kind of arbitrary rule-setting has always bugged me, and it’s been amplified even further since I got sick myself. It frustrates me how many mental health professionals lack the empathy to be able to imagine themselves in the place of the patient and consider what they might want/need in that situation. One of the places I work now is really bad for arbitrary rules, and it drives me bonkers.
Autonomy is a fundamental value held dear by most people. Sometimes, there is genuine therapeutic value in placing judicious limits at certain times and certain situations, but limitations on autonomy should not be the default when it comes to mental health treatment. When autonomy is arbitrarily stripped away, so is a little bit of our dignity and humanity.
While we may be patients, and we may have mental illnesses, we’re still human. We deserve to be treated in a way that is therapeutic rather than counter-therapeutic. We deserve to be treated with respect, and not to have arbitrary restrictions placed on our freedom. Treatment should be about healing, not about punishment. It should be patient-centred, not driven by stigma or centred around what’s easiest for the staff.
So that’s my rant. What are your thoughts on the cell phones on psych wards issue?
You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.