What I Learned From My Stay At A Mental Institution

What I Learned From My Stay At A Mental Institution

Elizabeth Broadbent

A couple years ago, I spent two weeks in a day treatment psychiatric institution. I know I probably shouldn’t be admitting this so openly, much less on the internet for all to read. Hell, my in-laws don’t know about this, and I’m not allowed to tell them. Friends have questioned my decision to disclose this information at all. They say it’ll affect future job searches; they say I’ll never be able to run for political office. If anyone wants dirt on me, well, here it is: I spent time in a mental institution.

Sure, I wonder what people will think. I worry about how this information might follow me. And I’m downright terrified it will affect my ability to adopt a child, though social services tells me it will not, as long as I have a letter from my psychiatrist with the necessary supporting information asserting that my mental health is stable. But despite the fears, I will not live in shame.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 3.5% of women from 18 to 44 — prime childbearing time — suffer “severe psychological distress” in any given year. That’s a hell of a lot of moms. In the same time period, 5.5% of women find themselves coping with “major depression with severe impairment,” which means a rating greater than 7 on a 10-point scale that measures impairment in “home management, work, close relationships with others, and social life.” I was one of that 5.5%, and my numbers looked more like 9s. Moreover, over one-quarter of all community hospital stays in America “involve depressive, bipolar, schizophrenia and other mental health disorders or substance use-related disorders,” according to the American Psychological Association. So I am far from alone in my need for psychiatric institutional care.

The APA also says that 57% of people believe that those with mental health issues are treated in a “caring and sympathetic manner” by others. And yet, the APA notes that while that 57% might think everything’s fine and dandy, only 25% of people with “mental illness symptoms” believe that others are caring and sympathetic toward those with a mental health disorder. As someone with severe treatment-resistant depression, probable bipolar disorder, a side of generalized anxiety disorder, and a cherry-on-top of ADHD, I would agree with this.

Most of the time, a cocktail of drugs stops the sadness from creeping in, but when my medication is not in balance, I worry my husband will die on his way to work. I fear my children will perish in a traffic accident, their shoes scattered in the weeds by the highway. I think the world will end in asteroids and H-bombs. Clutter and mess, the hallmark of three children 7 and under, drive me to rage. I sleep all the time. The panic attacks come with their breath-stealing, body-shaking cruelty. And when this all happened, when it caught me up like a tornado and shook me in its bone-clattering winds, so badly that my doctor said it would be a good idea to do this day treatment program, no one came to the party, as is so common with those of us who suffer from mental illness.

Our culture doesn’t have words for “I’m falling apart, please help.” When you’re in this situation, the APA recommends finding support. They recommend support groups and social services in the community — because they know, oftentimes, telling people to call families and friends won’t do much good. Those people who we think will be there for us, aren’t.

In the weeks leading up to my total breakdown, my mother came down for five days. My best friend took the kids a few times. And one friend watched our kids while we went to the psychiatric outpatient center to sign me up. But no one else came to help. There were no meals lined up or babysitting offers.

When I entered the hospital, people were nice, if not bland. I filled out mountains of forms and was shuttled off to group therapy. Studies show that at follow-up, 57% of depressed people who undergo cognitive-behavioral therapy in a group setting improve significantly, and 40% recover. So there’s no doubt, it works, but good group therapy takes time and lots of energy. With people sharing such vulnerable stories and pieces of themselves in group therapy, you can’t help but bond. There’s hugging, and lots of tissues. Personalities and roles emerge; victories are celebrated. But it’s also a long and sometimes boring process. I kept a picture of my kids on my cellphone and looked at it whenever I needed motivation.

During my stay, periodically, I’d get pulled out for an individual appointment with either a psychiatrist (medical doctor) or a psychologist (therapy doctor). The psych doc decided very early on that problems arose when I stopped taking a certain atypical antipsychotic that was giving me horrid side effects, so she put me on another. Boom. Done. I rode out the rest of the week, buoyed up a little every day, and was back in my regular headspace in a few days. But I still had to sit through another week in a psychiatric institution.

While at the psychiatric institution, I did therapy. I learned coping skills. But mostly, they adjusted my medication. There were no long, white hallways. No locked doors. No Nurse Ratcheds. My fellow patients were a cross-section of people, mostly they wanted to get back to their kids and their jobs just like me.

For most of us patients, there was a terrible stigma attached to the hospital and to our mental illnesses. We could either suffer in silence, or we could take the logical step to treat our diseases — even though the logical step of treatment is also fraught with shame. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I suppose.

These days, I’m fine. I spend a lot of time in group talking about my kids. My psychiatrist knows that my No. 1 goal is to be more than functional; I want to be a good parent. We approach every session, every medication change, with that goal in mind. When I bored my therapy groups with my Pinterest and homeschooling stories, I was attempting to prove my fitness as a parent. You do that when you have a mental illness; you constantly try to prove you’re worthy, that you’re an amazing parent, to combat all the stereotypes that persons with mental illness are unfit to care for children.

I take a pharmacopeia of medication to stay healthy, but I take fewer pills than most heart patients. My pills just affect serotonin reuptake rather than blood clotting. I take care of my kids. I write. My husband has no compunction about leaving the children with me. If sometimes I get afraid my car will crash, or an asteroid will hit the earth, well, that’s normal breakthrough anxiety. The hospital made sure of that and so does my psychiatrist. And for that, I am not ashamed.