3 lessons psych wards have learnt in the past decade

Psyciatric wards have come a long way in the last 50 years. But what's changed in the last decade?

Psyciatric wards have come a long way in the last 50 years. But what’s changed in the last decade?

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

  1. 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.

Mariska xxx

Have you noticed any changes or improvements in psychiatric wards over the past decade?

 

 

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What watching ET taught me about fear

Tonight I decided to introduce my kids to a movie classic – ET.  I had vague memories of a very cute Drew Barrymore playing with the Extra Terrestrial and thought my space-Leggo mad kids would love the movie too.

Less than 10 minutes into the movie, all three kids were hiding under the quilt… terrified by the sight of the weird, bald little alien.  I kept reassuring them it would get better, but when ET seemingly died 45 minutes later and all three kids had tears rolling down their faces, I was kicking myself for my choice of movie.

ET Movie

Who knew the lessons ET can teach?

At the end, my eight year old turned off the TV, turned to me and said: “Mum, you’re banned from making us watch any more movie ‘classics’ made before 2007! I’m never watching that movie ever ever again!”

His strong words reminded me of some I’d spoken myself eight years ago after his birth, when I had gone through an awful experience in a public hospital’s psychiatric ward.  I swore never to go back to that place – and for a long time I couldn’t even drive past it without feeling physically sick.

And yet, things change. Things that seem scary somehow suddenly no longer hold the same fear.  As the years tick by, the anger and fear are still there – but somehow less vivid.  And the bitterness begins to fade.

Two days ago, I walked back through the doors of that psychiatric ward.  This time, I didn’t arrive in the back of a police divvy van.  I wasn’t held down by police and injected with tranquilizers.  I wasn’t leaving behind my precious week-old baby. And I wasn’t declared mentally insane and kept behind locked doors.

This time, I drove to the hospital on my lunch-break and walked through the front doors by choice.  I put one foot in front of the of the other until I arrived at the reception desk.  I took a few deep breaths, smoothed down my jacket and tried to look as sane as possible as I asked for the Head of Nursing, who had promised to take me on a tour.

My husband couldn’t quite understand why I went back.  He said nothing could force him back there.  And I understood why.

The best way I can explain my need to go back there is that I wanted to face the thing that frightened me most.  I’m not a brave person normally (to be honest I found some scenes in ET a little scary myself).  But I wanted to see if visiting that psychiatric ward all these years later would help me see things differently.

As a mum, I help my kids to face their fears.  I talk them through it… trying to show them that what they’re most scared of (in this case, being attacked by a alien on the TV) is actually not all that scary.

I thought it was time to listen to my own mum-advice for once.

Mariska xx

Stay tuned for my next post – seeing if psychiatric wards have changed in the past eight years.

 

 

 

Am I brave enough to face the past?

I’ve never thought of myself as brave person.  I’m the type  who ducks and covers my face when someone throws me a football (or a set of keys).  I’m not fond of putting myself in dangerous situations… you’ll never find me posting a photo on Facebook of myself sky-diving and I shudder at the thought of getting surprise hot-air balloon ride tickets for my birthday.

I’m all for exploring new countries – but my idea of a fun holiday does not include bungee jumping, white-water rafting or eating snails, scorpians or other unidentified objects.

But something’s happened this week that has made me muster up all my bravery.

I’ve spoken before about the most horrific time of my life… being taken from my home in a police divvy-van eight days after the birth of my first baby and being locked up in the high-dependency unit of Maroondah Hospital’s psychiatric ward .

Many of you reading this will have endured similar things: the mistreatment at the hands of “carers”, the scariness of being in a mixed ward with mentally unstable men, the loneliness… desperately trying to get people to understand you, but being met with looks of fear or annoyance.

Which is why when the Head of Nursing at Maroondah’s psychiatric ward invited me this week to meet her in a fortnight for a tour of their new facilities, I found myself feeling the opposite of brave.

When I asked my ever-supportive husband if he’d come with me, he flatly refused.  I can’t say I blame him.  Instead of enjoying the first six weeks of our first baby’s life, we both endured a type of hell-on-earth which we wouldn’t wish on anyone.

While his wife was declared insane and committed to a locked ward, my husband juggled his shock of what had happened with the needs of a tiny newborn.  While most new mums struggle to get out of the house at all, my husband bundled up our baby son and brought him into a psych ward so I could have 30 precious minutes cuddling him.

When I finally came home, we were both so traumatised that we couldn’t stand to hear what the other had been through.  It took six months of counselling to finally accept what had happened and move on.  Still, for the past 8 years, my stomach has still felt sick whenever I’ve driven past the building where the psych ward is located.

So, why would I even consider going back?

Because I’ve now realised that unforgiveness and bitterness was only hurting one person… me.  I’ve made a conscious decision to forgive the staff in that ward for the way they treated me.

And to be honest, I’m also a tad curious.  The head nurse told me that things have improved “out of sight” since I was a patient there.  The ward now has a separate mood-disorders wing for women.  And she gushed in her email about the array of activities that patients can now take part in.

Part of me is skeptical that things have improved.  But I need to know that they have – because I couldn’t live with myself if others are still living in the hell-hole that I escaped.  When I left that ward, I promised to be the voice for those who couldn’t speak up for themselves.

And so, in two weeks, I’ll walk alone into the building that is the place where I lived through the most horrible moments of my life.  I’ll put one foot in front of the other – and I’ll smile and be courteous to the staff.  But I won’t be looking at the fancy new ward or plethora of activities to see if things have improved.  I’ll look into the eyes of the patients.

Mariska xx

Have you ever had to be brave – to face something or someone in your past?  Has the experience made you stronger?  Any tips for how to muster up bravery in situations like this?