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: hello@theatlantic.com.

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When We Don't Value Psychiatric Care

A long-time reader experienced the harmful consequences of low funding for mental-health facilities:

I have had major depressive disorder my whole life >60 years. I’ve been hospitalized 25-30 times—once for three months. And yes, you can get psychiatrists who say “You do what I tell you or I will put you in involuntary admission to the state hospital for a MINIMUM of six months … and there is NOTHING you can do.” What a power trip!

I have watched psych care change from three separate units in the hospitals to one general ward where the psychotic drug abusers, the schizophrenics, and depressives are all put in one large room. Health insurance pays BIG for major trauma—surgeries, ICUs, ER physicians, physical therapy, more surgeries. But for psych? Tiny by comparison.

So they cut staff and room for psych. We used to have art therapy (drawing with crayons), ping pong, basketball—tough to do when they take your shoelaces. But no money! Registered Nurses no longer come onto the ward. They sit behind one-way glass watching us on monitors. Cameras are even in our bathrooms and bedrooms! The nurses sit and watch computers.

Last time, there were 30 of us crammed into one room—just enough room to crowd in 30 stuffed chairs. Many of us are put on major tranquilizers and just want to sleep, but we are gotten out of bed at 0630, marched to the ward room, then stand in lines to get our meds—determined by a doctor who puts you on what THEY want, even if I’ve been on the same meds for decades. The change in meds can result in auditory and visual hallucinations, or the feelings of ants or spiders under your skin. Patients are screaming, crying.

We had HUGE techs—mostly former football players who stand around and yell at us. And if we do something wrong (most of the time we have NO idea what we did!) we can’t go to the cafeteria to eat! I went from 140 pounds to 125 in two weeks. And you cannot go back to your room and sleep! Not until 8:30 pm.

Why is the place is run by huge techs? Because psych patients CAN injure each other and the staff, so the ALL-important thing anymore is staff safety. But when you USED to have many aides, nurses, space, group therapy, patients were caught BEFORE getting violent.

Janalynne Rogers shares her experience with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), often called “shock treatment”—but it’s far less crude and risky than you might think:

Note: The kind editors at The Atlantic gave me the option of posting this anonymously. I’ve decided to use my full name because there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to having a mental illness and seeking whatever treatment works for you.

With the tragic death of Carrie Fisher propelling mental illness back into the mainstream media spotlight, I’ve been fielding more questions than ever about living with bipolar disorder. As someone with bipolar I [characterized by at least one manic episode, compared to the lesser bipolar II], I experience manic episodes wherein I feel invincible. I also have episodes of crippling depression. The most dangerous episodes are mixed, presenting with unbearable sadness combined with intense anger, self-loathing, and frenetic energy. Not only do I desperately want to die, I have the motivation to make that happen.

It’s terrifying.

One of the things people are most curious about is ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). Carrie Fisher was candid about her experiences with it, yet for many people ECT remains a mysterious, frightening concept. But ECT saved my life.

In 2012, an overwhelming mixed episode had me fighting for my mind and my life, and I begged my psychiatrist for help. He admitted me to the psych ward. After I settled in, we discussed changing my medication. We’d been conducting this chemistry experiment for 15 years, but it wasn’t enough. I had run out of options. He recommended ECT. It was my best shot at taking back control of my bipolar brain.

Also terrifying.

Before I agreed, I did some research. I learned that ECT was still the recommended second line of treatment in the standard medical guide to mental illness (the first being the drugs that had failed me). I considered the list of side effects, including memory loss, impaired thinking, and headaches. When the other option was waiting until I finally snapped and took my own life, these seemed like minor inconveniences.

So, I signed up for voluntary brain electrocution. For those unfamiliar with ECT, it goes something like this: