Eight weeks ago, I did something that I swore I would never do. I walked back through the doors of the public hospital psychiatric ward where I spent some of the worst weeks of my life, after the birth of my first baby eight years ago.
This time, I hadn’t arrived in the back of a police divvy van. I wasn’t disoriented or confused about why I was there. My mind wasn’t racing or tricking me with delusions. And I wasn’t greeted by emergency room staff who held me down and injected me with who-knows-what.
So why was I there?
Well, it started a few weeks beforehand, when I was out walking with a group of women. When I found out that one of the women was a nurse in the psychiatric ward where I had been a patient, I shared my story with her.
After mentioning how shocked I was at the conditions in the ward when I was there, she invited me to come and see the changes that had taken place at the pysch ward since then.
So I summoned up all my courage, and I returned. And here’s three ways I found this psych ward had changed in the past 8 years
- It’s finally hitting home: staff can make or break a psych ward
One of the biggest changes I noticed straight away in the psych ward was the staff – and their attitude towards the patients. Eight years ago, the horrific conditions meant the hospital I was in couldn’t attract or retain staff. They filled the gaps with temporary agency nursing staff and “carers”.
This may work in a regular hospital ward, but when you’re mentally unwell, having dedicated, committed staff is critical. Seeing regular faces – rather than a steady stream of agency staff – also helps us as patients to trust our carers. When you’re struggling with psychosis, depression, suicidal thoughts or delusions, a kind word or a gentle touch from nursing staff goes a long way. Patients deserve experienced staff who are committed to their patients and the reputation of the ward they work in.
2. It’s more than just medical help: the right atmosphere in a ward is integral
Less than two months after I left the ward eight years ago, it was demolished. To be honest, I’m not surprised. It was a dark, dingy place – with cramped conditions, unsuitable living areas and a small concrete courtyard where patients could walk in circles for exercise.
Entering the new purpose-built building, I immediately noticed the big picture windows, fresh colorful paint, friendly atmosphere and artwork on the walls. The head nurse proudly showed me the art-therapy room, family visit room (with direct street entrance so kids didn’t need to walk through the ward to get there) and an outdoor eating and sports area. There was even a dark room with bean bags, rocking chairs, weighted blankets, soft music, projected light patterns and musical instruments – a place where people struggling with mania could go to calm or soothe themselves.
I know it’s only superficial stuff. But sometimes, the way a place looks, smells and even feels can have such an impact on the way patients feel about being there.
3. Our voices have been heard: patients must be kept safe from harm by other patients
I’ve left the best change for last. The biggest change that I could see was that, while they shared the dining room and common areas, men and women had separate sleeping areas. Upon admission, female patients receive an electronic bracelet that gives them access to the female-only sleeping quarters and a small lounge room that they can retreat to if they feel unsafe. The ward was also built with two wing that could be used as required: one for regular mentally unwell people and the other for those displaying violent or predatory behaviour.
THIS IS INCREDIBLE, AMAZING STUFF!
I guess you’re sensing my excitement. Well, in my mind this is a game-changer.
In this ward in the past – and most likely in many others around the world – vulnerable, unwell female patients (and in some cases male) have been attacked or raped by other patients. You can’t compare a psych ward to other hospital wards – where patients are there because they are physically unwell. Genders sharing sleeping quarters in situations where people are psychotic, delusional and not “in their right mind” – and not giving women a safe space – is a recipe for disaster.
I was reassured to see that the safety of women in this psych ward at least, is now top-of-mind for staff. And in the case that I’m every a patient there again, I’d be very pleased to know that staff now have the ability to separate out patients known for their violence or predatory behavior.
Have these changes been made in every psychiatric ward?
While I’d love to believe they had, I doubt it. Less than 50 years ago conditions in psychiatric wards – or mental asylums as they were called – were barbaric. Change has come, but lack of funds or political will means that it is slower in some places than others.
As people who know what it’s like to be mentally unwell and vulnerable, we need to band together and keep asking for change. Without our voices, speaking up about the conditions in these wards and insisting that changes are made, others like us will continue to suffer.
Have you noticed any changes or improvements in psychiatric wards over the past decade?
2 thoughts on “3 lessons psych wards have learnt in the past decade”
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Mariska you have seeded a thought that I too would like to go back to the psych ward that I was in, without my son, when he was only a few days old. The memories still haunt me at times. I wonder if they would lose their power if I had your courage to walk back through the door? I am writing a novel at the moment and parts of the book were inspired by this experience…Maybe I could take a big girl pill and do what you have done! Thanks for being so brave and bold!