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My Experience Being a Patient in Behavioral Health Units (& How My Last Stay Scared Me From Going Back)

I am no stranger to inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations or even to partial hospitalization programs for mental health treatment and care. Before my first ever stay in a Behavioral Health Unit, I lived in fear of being told I needed inpatient mental health care because it was something I had never experienced before and feared deeply.

I only knew what I had seen in movies and on TV about psych wards which is never painted to be something that’s very helpful or restful. When you only see what the media says about psych units, you may start to image screaming psych patients everywhere in restraints with white padded rooms nearby and patients being mandated to receive ECT. But in real life, it really isn’t that bad and it’s usually very helpful when you and your moods start spinning out of control and you need a little extra help to get yourself back on track again.

I was forced by the ER medical staff who was treating me one fateful night to receive mandatory inpatient care for my mental health for the first time ever after my ex-husband and cousin had called the cops on me for self-injurious behavior and for running around the house like a lunatic to get my ex to stop chasing me when he was just trying to get me to calm down and stop hurting myself. Although, I can’t see my ex actually doing anything that could be considered helpful to me unless he had something to gain from it. So, when they didn’t know what else to do with me, they called the police and once I realized they called the cops because I was in an apparent mental crisis and they were supposedly worried about me, I tried to jump out of a third story window to get away from the cops because I knew they were going to take me to the hospital and I didn’t want to go.

I must have looked like a drunken mess that night because, well, I was drunk and also ended up needing stitches for a self-inflicted wound. I was all over the place, up and down mentally. They had to sedate me to get me to stop acting out and to get me to calm down. I am not sure how old I was during my first stay at a Behavioral Health Unit, but it was before my 21st birthday yet sometime after I was already 18.

For my first hospitalization, I think I was there for about a week. The psych doctor on the BHU (Behavioral Health Unit) stopped all my meds and started me on new ones that they felt would be more effective. My first night on the ward, I didn’t really bother with anyone. I was still angry that the hospital basically 302’ed me without giving me much of a choice. Which in my home state of PA, 302 is the code for an involuntary psychiatric hold or stay. It always looks worse on your record to be 302’ed compared to a voluntary inpatient psych stay.

It took me about another day or two on the unit before I started talking to the other patients and comparing our mental health diagnosis’s. The staff was very helpful on the unit as well and helped ease some of my fears and anxieties that I was having about being a psych inpatient. I started to realize that being an inpatient on the BHU wasn’t as scary as I had originally thought. There had a dining wing, a community room with games and TVS, another community room to do puzzles in or to get creative with pre-approved art supplies. I spent a lot of time doing little arts and crafts to help pass some of the boredom.

That’s one thing that does suck about BHU’s, is that there isn’t really all that much to do to pass the time which sometimes feels like it drags on forever. I looked forward to group sessions and some of the activities they had scheduled just because it was something to do. I also had a lot more time to journal while in the hospital. The hospital supplied us with little, tiny pencils without erasers and a notebook and I chose to turn my notebook into a journal about my stay on the BHU and quickly filled it with my thoughts, feelings, and some bad depressing poetry. I would just sit in my room at my little desk and write for hours on end.

What sucks for smokers is that most psychiatric units or hospitals out here don’t allow their patients to smoke anymore. By my third day on the ward, I was dying for a cigarette and the nicotine patches just were not cutting it which gave me the idea to pretend I was doing much better than I really was so that they would let me leave sooner rather than later. And my plan must have worked because they decided to discharge me a few days later.

The one thing that some hospitals tell their patients after being released from the BHU is that the next stage when you first come home from the hospital is known as the honeymoon phase. This is because when most people get released from a BHU, their loved ones tend to walk around on egg shells for a little while, maybe even for up to a few weeks after the release from the unit, to avoid and prevent disturbing the already disturbed psych patient. People tend to treat you like the slightest upset could send you right back to the hospital and like your too fragile to handle things on your own. After the honeymoon phase is up, everything starts to return to how things were before you got sent to the hospital and you have to learn to try to cope with life using the coping skills they give you while at the hospital.

My first stay on a BHU popped my psych ward cherry and I ended up having to go back to inpatient treatment anywhere between four and five more times throughout the years. But I was no longer scared of what to expect when entering a BHU which made going back to one so much easier. I even signed myself into the hospital after being manic for a month and becoming increasingly self-destructive. I may have had five or six separate inpatient stays but I was only at two different BHUs.

I finally learned to except when you need extra mental health care that you just can’t get from outpatient treatment, that going inpatient is needed and helpful.

However, my last stay at a psychiatric hospital I was sent to this place about two hours from me for treatment. The lured me in by telling me that they allow their patients to take smoke breaks several times a day. This stay made me want to never go back for inpatient psych treatment and care ever again. They ran the facility like a military school. If you didn’t wake up on time the first time they wake you up, they make you skip your smoke break and even sometimes a meal. They were very strict there. They forced you to participate in group therapies if you wanted to get out and go home sooner rather than later. The staff wasn’t the caring, sympathetic type that I had gotten used to at the normal BHU that I went to in the past.

They even made me do a strip search when I first arrived at the facility via medical transportation. I didn’t know what they thought I could get my hands on while being transported to the facility strapped to a gurney but they hospital staff still made me do the strip search which I only had to have done once before in my life and that was while I was in police custody for something I did during a manic blackout. This hospital was comparable to being in a prison holding cell. I hated every minute there and just started talking like I was feeling better so that I could get out of there as soon as possible.

The hospital I was at during my last inpatient stay was called Brook Glenn Behavioral Hospital and I thought being released from there was going to feel amazing, but the only thing that changed my positive outlook on leaving there was the fact that the hospital was too far for my mom to drive to come pick me up. So, on the day of my release, they shoved me in a cab with another patient that was also getting released for the BHU who I had never met before and happened to be a male which made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and unsafe. The hospital gave each of us just enough money to purchase a bus ticket home but didn’t give any real instructions on which bus to take to get home or anything. They give you a few dollars and then tell you that you’re not their problem anymore basically.

At that point, I had never gotten on a bus in a strange city by myself and I wasn’t sure what to do or where to go so I was really panicked and was overwhelmed with anxiety and I had to follow the strange males lead so that I could just get back home. I hated sitting next to this stranger who apparently found me attractive and hit on me the entire three-hour bus ride including having to deal with multiple bus transfers which further freaked me out and made me worry about what would happen If I took the wrong bus and couldn’t figure out how to get back home. My cell phone completely dead from sitting in a locker on the BHU for about a week so it not like I could have called anyone to come pick me up.

I was shocked and disgusted by how this hospital put strangers together and let them find their way home and by how they had me share a cab with an unstable stranger who happened to be of the opposite sex knowing my past history and traumas. That shit was traumatizing to me and scared me enough to say that I will not go back to another BHU even during times when I knew I really needed to be hospitalized. The guy they discharged me with even found my number and would call me constantly and telling me that he loves me among other crazy shit.

It was just crazy how my release and journey home from the BHU went down. I would have been totally screwed if I didn’t have that psycho helping me purchase bus tickets and get onto the right buses during transfers.

This one horrible BHU stay undid all the progress I made toward accepting when I needed inpatient help. I don’t want to be put in the same situation ever again. Even though it has been some odd years since I was inpatient, I can still remember my stay at Brook Glenn vividly and it still stirs up feelings from the day I was released.  

I have had some good and some bad experiences while being a patient on BHUs. If you have never been inpatient for psych reasons before, don’t let my bad experience hinder you from seeking out help when you need it. There have been times where I strongly believe going inpatient helped saved my life.

Samantha View All

Samantha is the author of "My Bipolar Mind: You're not alone," she is also a freelance writer, blogger, and mental health advocate who runs and manages her own mental health blog

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