Reporter's Notebook

Living in a Mental Hospital: Your Stories
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Readers share their personal experiences. If you have your own to share, please send us a note:

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Feeling Coerced Into Psychiatric Care

This next reader had a horrible time as an inpatient, and her feelings ranged from lonely boredom to the fear of sexual assault:

I can’t tell if the timing of Eva’s letter is great or awful for me, because I’ve been in an inpatient psych ward twice in my life—and due to various circumstances, I recently began to wonder if I’ll soon be forced into a third. Eva mentions that her experiences have been a mixed bag, and I guess I’d categorize my experiences similarly, overall. But the negative moments have been so horrendous that more than once I’ve caught myself thinking it’s not worth saving my life if I have to be trapped in one of those places again.

I’ve only been in psychiatric wards in the U.S., and they’re pretty uneventful. The most notable thing about them is the widespread boredom. Sure, there are group therapy sessions and arts and crafts and meals, but all of those occupy at most 30 percent of the time. The rest of the day I spent lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and crying, or sitting in the community room watching whatever soap opera was on TV that day. You were not allowed access to any electronics—not even a cheap MP3 player to help soothe yourself—for the entire stay, and there were no locks on any of the interior doors.

The other inpatients were rather benign. (The only issue I had in that regard was an older man who either seemed to want to be my drug dealer or my sugar daddy, I’m still not sure which. Maybe both.) What elevated dull hospital stays into “Never Again” is the widespread incompetence and cruelty of the doctors who “recommended” my hospitalization and controlled my fate once I was there.


The first time I was an inpatient I was 16. I had been depressed since I was 11, and my illness had recently progressed into self-harm with scissors. When my psychiatrist found out, he forbade me from cutting myself and threatened hospitalization. Of course, because I was 16, I agreed out loud but in my head told him to go screw himself. I kept cutting.

Out of the blue recently, a reader emailed hello@ with a simple note: “I would really love it if The Atlantic did an article or collected reader experiences of stays in psychiatric hospitals.” I asked Eva if she’s ever been to one herself, and she replied:

Yes, I am in a psychiatric hospital even now. Not crazy, but in a severe depression for a year and a half now, with bad anxiety. Bad stuff in life a couple of years ago triggered this, plus a certain amount of genetic predisposition, plus not the right meds. In a year and a half, it’s been three psychiatric stays in the States, one in Norway, and three in Germany. I’m joking sometimes now that I should write about international comparisons of mental facilities :)

I do have the feeling that I’m finally better—knock on wood. I do often think about the everyday routines in these type of hospitals: the many biographies and patients with various illnesses you encounter, the humiliating events that happen, the bleak hopeless days where you merely hang in there, the struggle to maintain a measure of dignity for yourself, or the small unexpected comforts one finds.

I can think of many things to write about. And I would just love to hear from other people who have these types of experience. It is more common than one thinks.

If you’ve had a memorable experience in a mental hospital, either as a patient or staff member, please send us a note: In a followup note, Eva elaborates on her experiences in poignant detail:

Humiliating events

There are many small things about psychiatric hospital life that can cause tear and wear on your personality and dignity—the whole sum of it, really: the meal times; the bed times; medications you may not want to take; having to be back on the ward by certain times; having to ring bells and wait for doors to be unlocked; staff going through your underwear and personal things whenever; having to step out of the shower to show you really are present when presence is checked; having to strip down completely upon admission to get searched for scars, wounds, injection marks, drugs ... between your toes and fingers, underneath your breasts. Just all of it as a whole, and keeping a measure of dignity, adult self-determination, and personality—and I guess, sass.

Personally I found it very humiliating to return to the same hospital a second and then a third time—both after an overdose of pills—and for prolonged stays. I felt like shrinking into the ground, like not meeting anyone’s eyes for the first few days. Here’s Eva AGAIN, still depressed, still not cured, with yet another overdose.

Although there is wonderful staff, there really are quite a few Nurse Ratcheds everywhere, and the encounters with them can wither your pride and not let you keep your chin up and head held high.

My absolute lowest low, and greatest sense of humiliation ever, was just after my most serious suicide attempt and closest call. I did this—and I am truly ashamed of this—on the ward itself.

I woke up in intensive care. Apart from that close-to-death feeling getting under your skin, and the actual overdose itself making you feel awfully sick for days, it is the behavior of those around you that alienates and humiliates. I really do know what I did was wrong, and that suicidal people need a strict environment—but strict does not equal bone-chillingly-cold people who avoid you, are mad at you, or think you have deserved this misery.

For days after the suicide attempt, I received not a single smile, not a single kind word—no encouragement at all. Lots scolded me harshly, and each seemed to think they were the first and only people to do that. I started to not feel like a human being. I felt I was not worthy of having survived. My mom didn’t speak to me for one week and that was terrifying.