You know the feeling when you walk through a doorway and you’ve forgotten why you’re there? That’s how it felt to walk through the hospital door and enter the psychiatric ward for the first time. A little bit surreal.

The first time I entered those doors was 17 years ago—I was just 16 and hiding under a very thin white blanket while seated in a wheelchair. My parents nervously escorted me through the industrial-looking doors.

I’m not exactly sure why I was under a blanket but my mind had been playing tricks on me and I was frightened. I’ve since learned I was having symptoms of paranoia that are fairly common in many people with bipolar disorder. Only a few nights earlier I had heard demons chanting the name of my savior in my head: “Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!

What Happens in A Psychiatric Ward?

On the day I was admitted, I remember waiting in the ER for what seemed like hours, beforehand. When I arrived, there was a whole new team of medical personnel wanting to see the young girl hiding behind a blanket. My mom prompted me and I shyly stood up, trying really hard to be brave. Thank goodness the first person to greet me was a friendly aide. A friendly aide.

“Hi, I’m Kim. You must be Katie.” She was the first face of hope I met there. After taking me to the nurse’s office to get my vitals, I met Holly, another aide, with a sparkling personality that also helped put me at ease for the remainder of my three weeks there.

The seriousness of the experience didn’t hit me until my parents left. It felt surreal and lonely but on some level, I knew I needed help. This was one way to get it.

I didn’t know what to expect and it would have been less scary if I knew what would happen in advance.

Why Do People Go to Psych Wards

Inpatient psychiatric care can be very helpful for people struggling with mental health challenges. The intensive care available in mental hospitals can provide the break you need to receive treatment and focus on getting well.

That has certainly been my experience. I’m not saying it’s a vacation—therapy is hard work—but most people leave feeling better than they did prior to arriving there in the first place.

Do Mental Hospitals Help?

In the United States efforts to reduce hospital stays and save money have led to overcrowded emergency rooms and people with serious psychological distress not receiving the treatment they need. Experts define serious psychological distress (SPD) as feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and restlessness that are hazardous enough to impair physical well-being.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 20% of American adults experienced mental illness in 2019. That’s one in five adults. Inpatient, 24-hour care comes in a variety of forms. It can exist in a dedicated wing of a hospital, a private hospital, or a public/state hospital. Care is usually provided by psychiatrists, nurses, and therapists.

Mental hospitals can be an effective way to receive treatment but some evidence suggests that intensive outpatient programs (IPOs) can also be helpful.

What’s most important is to reach out for help and support if you are struggling because treatment works. I’m living proof! You can get better and you will.

How Is The Day Structured in A Psychiatric Ward?

There is a schedule that isn’t necessarily the same every day. But you can be sure the staff will keep you on schedule. You are expected to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and sleep for at least 8 hours. There is order to the day.

Mine often looked like this: time to prepare for the day (I got an hour in the morning), breakfast, quiet time, recess/physical activity, TV time, study time (for school-aged patients), recreation time, and group therapy. After lunch, more of the same activities follow until a break for dinner which is often followed by visitor hours, movie time, and lights out.

The activities don’t necessarily occur in that order but the schedule is typically posted in a  visible place.

When can I see my doctor?

At least once a week I would see the doctor. Maybe not as often as I wanted, but at least as often as he could see me. I recommend being as honest and transparent as possible with the doctor. They want to know how you’re doing, so tell them if you’re having a cruddy day, or if your symptoms are bothering you. They are there to help you.

Wait a minute, can I change my mind?

Depending on the laws that govern the state where the facility is located, in the adult ward, may be able to petition your case, provided you voluntarily admitted yourself, and fill out the proper paperwork during the first 72 hours (3 days). In the adult ward I went to, the state of Florida had a law that allowed the patients who had voluntarily admitted themselves to petition the hospital administration in a court of law within the hospital to review and possibly repeal their case for earlier release.

I recommend visiting the Treatment Advocacy Center website for more information on laws concerning admission and release. They monitor the 46 United States that abide by a common set of laws for the treatment of patients and score them in their efficiency to abide by those laws. Also, if you were involuntarily committed, there are laws to keep you monitored and unable to be discharged for the first 72 hours (three days).

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Are Psychiatric Wards Dangerous?

I can’t say there weren’t times when patients got out of control and the staff had to intervene but if you follow the rules and avoid confrontation with others, you should have no problem. Try to keep your distance physically and emotionally from people who you think may have the potential to be violent. Also, remember that many people in the psych ward may just like you and you may even find a friend or two during your time there. I created a lifelong friendship at the psychiatric ward.

What kind of testing is performed?

They draw your blood upon admission. They also take your vitals regularly, usually morning and evening, but at least once a day.

What does the facility look like?

The psych wards I’ve been in had the basics. I would describe them as pretty plain on the inside. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to make interior design a priority.

The first one had no pictures on the walls, and the second had about three abstract paintings and two illustrations that reminded me of the Silence Of The Lambs movie poster (eerie, I know). Another adult ward I stayed in had vaulted ceilings with large photos of beautiful locations around the world. There are usually minimal decorations and “homey” items. It’s easy to understand that it would be a risk to keep any home-like furnishings in the rooms, so it was pretty bare, needless to say.

Are The Beds in Mental Hospital Rooms Comfortable?

Honestly, all of the beds I had slept on were pretty stiff. They had plywood frames and no headboards, with a couple inches of mattress padding. But the sheets and linens were cleaned regularly, thankfully.

How Long Is The Typical Stay?

I do know that some people were out the next day. And some people stay longer. I was there for 3 weeks. Some people stay a few months.  Doctors and staff regularly review the patients’ behaviors. Their input in part dictates the length of treatment at the facility.  The staff wants to ensure you’re safe and not a harm to yourself or others before you are discharged.

What do you wear?

When I was in the juvenile ward, we wore scrubs. In the adult ward, we wore casual, comfortable everyday clothing. They confiscate any belts, hoodie strings, shoestrings, and the like so as to take away anything that may pose a safety risk.

Is there any physical activity?

This may vary from place to place, but there was always a recreation time to either interact with others in a gym or outside in the enclosed courtyard. Take advantage of the physical activities, your brain needs it as much as your body. And you may end up passing on it during times you want to be alone to think or relax.

How can I avoid sensory overload?

It may be best that once in a while, during times that the patients congregate in a group, you may want to go to your room to rest, away from the noise and commotion. There were days it was hard for me to handle the day-to-day activities in my mental illness, and an even greater a struggle to deal with a blaring movie on TV or a crowd of people talking loudly waiting for their meds in the dayroom. Permit yourself to take breaks from the anxiety-inducing activities, know and identify your triggers, and learn coping skills.

A final note: be sure to make the most of it. Your time in the psych ward may be the darkest night of the soul, or a welcome reprieve from the lifestyle you lead that could help you get your bearings while you’re away. In either case, know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It may seem like the moments are going on forever, but just remember, “This too shall pass.” So, while you’re waiting for discharge, cooperate, and work on you.

Being isolated within a hospital psychiatric unit may seem contrary to what you need when you’re not in a stable frame of mind. You’re not surrounded by friends or family inside those walls, though they should be more than welcome to come visit you. I would encourage you to seek professional help when deciphering whether or not you should be admitted to a psychiatric unit. I know I received the help I could not have gotten elsewhere had I not been committed. In the end, my mental health benefitted greatly from it.

For a wider breadth of understanding about hospitalizations and what questions to ask, I recommend reading the information on psychiatric hospitalization on the Mental Health America website. Visit The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) website for more information about recovery and support after you leave the hospital.

Last Updated: Jul 15, 2021