What I Learned From Five Days in a Psychiatric Ward

what its like in a psych ward

I’m folding my clothes, none of which have strings in them. There are two empty chasms at the hood of each sweatshirt, in each pair of pants where the drawstrings should be. I fold each piece in half, place them in a drawer. The chasms remind me: I don’t have strings in my clothes because I spent five days in a psychiatric ward.

It’s not like I could forget anyway.

The nurses took our strings and our phones. We wore hospital-grade socks to ensure no one slipped in the hallways; our shoes went in a locker. I wasn’t allowed to have a hair tie, but I bartered a bag of Doritos for a rubber band another girl had snuck in.

She had been using it to snap her skin with, but I threw my hair in a bun with the band. I was tired of my hair falling on either side of my hollowed-out cheeks, two greasy brown curtains. I got weighed every morning. A nurse took my blood pressure, my temperature, asked me if I had a bowel movement.

mental hospital
Girl, Interrupted (1999)

I hated showering there. Rules forbade flip-flops because crafty people could use flip-flop thongs as a noose. That ruled out shower shoes, so I had to shower wearing socks, throw out the socks, then ask for new socks.

After meals, I couldn’t throw out the contents of my tray. Instead, I slipped it back on the tray cart where it was labeled, “Stephanie.” When dinner hour was over, a cafeteria attendant would check each tray and record how much we ate.

I didn’t do much therapy. In Group, we didn’t tell our stories or share emotions. We discussed how to cope with suicidal feelings by focusing on what we were good at. We filled out Gratitude Lists and made Safety Plans for the next time we experienced a moment of crisis.

But mostly, I colored.

I colored pictures of turtles and underwater scenes. I watched Wheel of Fortune, played Scrabble with people who were dyslexic or could not spell; made bracelets with the shaky Cat’s Cradle technique I learned nearly twenty years ago in summer camp.

In the cafeteria, we played M*A*S*H with construction paper and crayons. We learned that Allie* was going to live in an apartment with her wife Beyonce and have 112 kids and Ben H.* would live in a mansion with his wife Nicki Minaj and have no kids. But they each would drive a Tesla.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015)

We made fortune tellers but weren’t allowed to write any “negative” fortunes. Every prediction said, “Today’s going to be a good day,” or “The world is on your side,” or “You will come into a large sum of money.”

Maybe you know all of this already, as in maybe you’ve heard it before. Perhaps you read It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini or watched Brittany Murphy hang herself in Girl, Interrupted. Or hey, maybe you watched Orange Is the New Black and figured, psych is probably a lot like prison. (And in some ways, it is.)

But this is my story and it’s a little bit different. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to spend nearly a week in a psychiatric ward, here are some of the lessons I learned “on the inside.”

Mental health facilities don’t have enough resources.

what its like mental hospital
It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)

In the ward where I stayed, there was a small supply of books and magazines. Nothing crazy or very interesting. The most exciting title we had was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It was a hot commodity amongst the patients and it caused some minor turmoil between me and the boy who snatched it from me my first day.

Technology was limited. We had a DVD player, but not much of an array of titles: workout vids from the 80s, Fraggle Rock, tutorials on Tai-Chi… There were more VHS tapes than DVDs, but working the VCR was intimidating.

Many of the games in the psychiatric ward were missing pieces. We played Scrabble without some of the most important letters: X, J, and Z. Game boards were broken or worn; puzzles were missing pieces, too. The only category we had a seemingly endless supply of were art supplies.

After I got out, my mother and I rounded up board games and DVDs and VHS tapes and whatever else we could donate. We dropped it off at the hospital soon after. Ever since, I’ve made it a goal to donate books and other forms of entertainment to psychiatric wards and prisons every six months.

It’s important to have at least one goal.

youre the worst gretchen depression
You’re The Worst (2014)

“You have to have plans,” someone told me. If I wanted to get out of the psychiatric ward and go home, I needed to show the psychiatrists and the nurses that I had found a purpose — something to work towards, no matter how trivial it was.

I chose two: I had been inspired by Pet Therapy while in the ward and I decided my dog could do that also. So, I made the goal of enrolling my puppy in obedience training and then eventually, getting her Pet Therapy Certification. With that certification, I could bring her to cancer wards, hospitals, psychiatric wards, and have her help people. We would give back.

My second goal was to get into grad school and write a book about my experience. I did that; I graduate in May and submit my thesis to the board this summer.

Not everyone has support.

silver linings playbook bipolar
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

My own privilege glared back at me when I was in the psych ward. I had a change of clothes — nice clothes — every day. My parents visited me during every Visitor Hour and my friends either called or came. They brought me snacks and ice cream and pictures of my dog. I had a support system while I was in there and even more importantly, a support system to go home to after.

I learned a lot in there, mostly from observing other people. I met a boy who had been hospitalized more than five times in the past two years, self-inflicted cuts up and down his arms and legs. I met a woman in her 80s who had been institutionalized at Pilgrim State Hospital during the days of electroshock therapy and agrarian methods of mental illness treatment.

Many of the people I met were homeless, who had to stay in the psychiatric ward for an extra few days because they simply had nowhere to go when they got out.

When I left the ward, I was shaking. My parents were there to pick me up and I was going home to a place where I would have shelter, and food, and warmth, and family that loved me. This was a lot more than many of my other co-patients had.

I was going home to shelter, food, warmth, and love but all I kept thinking about was hooking up the new Apple TV in my room. That’s enough to make me want to stay alive, I thought. I’ll just watch Netflix for the rest of my life and that’s enough.

But for many others, that was not the norm. Many were homeless or had families who lived in other states and could not make rent on their own. Some had no one to pick them up when they got discharged; nurses had to arrange housing for them or pay for the train tickets.

Others were discharged only to come back weeks or days later.

Exercise is your best friend.

mental health movies
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Being isolated from the world with little to do often gives you a lot of time for both reflection and adjustment. One thing you miss the most is the outdoor activity.

Exercise offers a host of benefits for the mind and body. Doing simple activities such as squats, leg rolls, or even press-ups can help build up your body’s stamina and resilience.

Without engaging in any rigorous activity for at least one month, your mind may be slow, and as a result, impact your ability to make decisions and think critically. Exercise improves mental health by improving oxygen circulation in the body, and in particular, your brain.

Develop a need to perform subtle tasks such as stretches, lunges, Glute bridge, planks, and burpees every once in a while as a way of keeping your body flexible and your mind fresh.

The system is broken in many ways.

shamless ian bipolar
Shameless (2011)

It’s a sad truth but many of the people are return “offenders.” Like the boy who cut himself repeatedly, who had been there more than five times. Like a bipolar girl I met who ended up in the psychiatric ward after each bipolar episode, meds requiring adjustments.

And as I mentioned above, many of the patients are also homeless. Or if not homeless, in and out of public housing for the mentally ill. They don’t have support systems or health insurance or the ability to pay for their hospital bills or meds.

Many of them cannot keep jobs because of their mental states; one of the girls I met experienced several episodes as part of her bipolar disorder and each time, it began with her randomly quitting her job.

Personally, I found more solace in socializing and coloring than I did in Group Therapy. In my particular experience, there wasn’t a whole lot of therapy at all. In fact, the little amount I got was questionable.

The teen psych unit is a whole other beast altogether. At the time I was hospitalized, teen units throughout the State of New York were experiencing overcrowding. (The nurse I talked to blamed it on 13 Reasons Why, the first season of which had just debuted on Netflix). Many teens were staying days in the emergency room without round-the-clock therapy or psychiatric treatment. It was heartbreaking to know how many teens out there were just waiting for a bed.

The system is imperfect, which is why we need to keep the dialogue of mental health going. We need political infrastructure that supports people with mental illness, affordable health care, and communities that care about peoples’ mental health.

We need to understand how to empathize with someone in crisis. Then, maybe, we can minimize the number of crises. That’s what I remember every time I fold my clothes.


What It Was Like Being a Suicide Hotline Volunteer

* Names, characteristics, and genders have been changed to protect parties involved.

Steph Osmanski
Steph Osmanski is a freelance writer and social media consultant who specializes in health and wellness content. Her words have appeared in Seventeen, Life & Style, Darling Magazine, and more. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook Southampton and writing a memoir.