All too often in popular culture, hospitals that provide desperately needed help for patients having mental health crises are turned into the stuff of jokes and nightmares.
I’m hoping that high-profile stories of well-known and highly regarded people seeking psychiatric help—including the recent hospitalization of Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman, who admitted himself to a psychiatric facility on February 15 to receive treatment for clinical depression—continue to put this kind of care into the mainstream while upending some of those harmful stereotypes.
Even though I’ve lived with mental illness since I was in junior high school, I always had a nightmarish perception of hospitals that offered inpatient or outpatient behavioral health centers. I’d heard too many jokes about “loonie bins.”
But the unsettling images of chained-up, violent patients and wicked psychiatrists in no way prepared me for the actual experience of being a patient in one of those wards, most recently at the age of 54, in November of 2021.
This was my second experience in an acute care facility. I was hospitalized previously in 1996 at age 29 during a previous life-threatening mental health crisis.
Unlike Fetterman, I was placed on involuntary psychiatric holds in both 1996 and 2021. A section of California’s Welfare and Institutions Code allows adults who are having a mental health crisis to be involuntarily detained for 72 hours.
After the first hospitalization, I felt so much shame that I covered up the truth from some of my closest friends and kept a few family members in the dark for decades. Most loved ones were supportive, but I also confided in people—including doctors treating me for ailments having nothing to do with mental health—who reacted with condescension.
When I was brought in to an inpatient care facility in the East Bay in 2021, after experiencing sleeplessness, suicidal thoughts, and a terrifying relapse of my acute depression and anxiety disorder, it felt like my past had caught up with me.
In the hospital, I met with kind and concerned patients, and dedicated, if seriously overworked, nurses.
My first night on the ward, I bonded quickly with other patients, who challenged each other in a contest to see who could circumvent the octagonal ward hallway with the fewest possible steps—a competition that caused many of us to rip our flimsy hospital scrubs.
We played basketball in a small gym and laughed at reruns of a Jurassic Park movie. Forced sedation was nowhere to be seen. I saw patients refuse their medications.
Most of the people I met there were not in the hospital by choice. Like me, they were on involuntary holds, though most cycled out of the hospital in a few days. In my case, my stay was extended to nine days because of lingering concerns for my safety.
Because my second hospitalization was so much longer than my first in 1996, there was much more time to get to know other patients.
Some of the people I met did not want to stay in contact after their release, believing “ward friendships should stay on the ward.” They did not want any triggering reminders of the trauma they experienced. Nevertheless, I found a hospital confidante who continues to reach out with messages of support.
Life in the ward was never easy. It was heartbreaking to see so many people in extreme distress every day. The doors kept swinging open to admit yet another terrified—and usually young—patient. But a community formed and we tried to make the most of it.
The hallways were filled with the sound of gossip. For the first time in my life, I was assigned a psychiatrist who really cared about me and asked the necessary questions to match my diagnosis with the right meds.
And though we were in crisis, a few moments of joy punctuated the hard times. Music therapists let us rock out to the songs of Nicki Minaj and Doja Cat.
We did arts and crafts, had access to an herb garden, and filled our days with well-taught seminars about personal responsibility, distress tolerance, and benchmarks of recovery.
In the end, I came to understand that my initial perceptions of a behavioral health center as the “rock bottom” of life or a living nightmare were ingrained and relentless, but wrong.
But I was startled by the news of John Fetterman’s hospitalization and his openness about the experience, perhaps because I come from a generation that hid those experiences.
I worried that Fetterman’s treatment for depression would be mischaracterized as something disgraceful, a marker of weakness or a character defect, regardless of the fact that an estimated 21 million adults in the U.S. have had at least one major depressive episode according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Granted, we’ve been making some headway even compared to the recent past. Tune into Gilmore Girls, a show that ran from 2000-2007 and is now enjoying a revival on Netflix. The wince-inducing remarks about people with mental illnesses make the show seem dated these days. “This town is like one big outpatient mental institution,” the character of Christopher, played by the actor David Sutcliffe, says in a typical laugh line.
Even now, tedious and harmful stereotypes abound. On YouTube, videos exploring “haunted asylums” are commonplace, and over on Etsy, merchandise including an orange-colored short-sleeve shirt saying “PSYCH WARD OUTPATIENT,” and even a psych ward sticker pack, is available for a handful of dollars.
These old, enduring tropes are not just damaging to former, and current, inpatients like Fetterman and myself. It can send the message that seeking treatment for mental health issues is still something to feel ashamed about, or worse, frightened of.
Yet one in five Americans suffer with mental health issues, and the disparity between need and resources has become alarming.
As scared as they looked, those legions of young people I met in the ward were lucky to get bed spaces at all. Demand for mental health care has increased exponentially since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, The World Health Organization reported that the global prevalence of depression and anxiety spiked by 25 percent in the same year. Since then, in some U.S. states, younger people have wound up in a holding pattern in emergency rooms for days or even weeks, awaiting spaces in psychiatric facilities.
During my stay, the hospital ward seemed inundated—which underscored my belief that these places need our support instead of our mockery.
I’ve been surprised and heartened by most of the reactions to Fetterman’s highly publicized stay in an inpatient ward. The public outpourings of support for his voluntary stay at the hospital, from many Republicans as well as Democrats, made me wonder if the stigma is fading somewhat. I’m sensing that it is no longer OK to publicly ridicule those who are seeking help.
But I’ve also seen a lot of internet chatter that seizes upon Fetterman’s current inpatient hospital care as part of a larger discussion of his “fitness” for office, a public debate that some have been having since the stroke he suffered in 2022.
These comments make me worry about the conditional aspects of support for people having mental health crises. If those who disagree with you are willing to weaponize your own mental illness against you, is it really safe to go public with your struggles?
I sense a certain understandable wariness in Fetterman and his staff. They have revealed almost nothing about the circumstances of his hospitalization, except for the fact that he’d been battling depression. To erase the stigma, more people need to go public about why they needed the inpatient help in the first place.
The fact is, a psychiatric ward in the East Bay saved my life.
To say that I was “admitted for depression” would gloss over the fact that I was suicidal and in immediate danger. I was delusional, unable to sleep for weeks, and having constant thoughts of self-harm. It felt as if my nervous system had become dysregulated. My life no longer belonged to me. It felt as if someone else was walking around in my body, wearing my oversized glasses and mimicking my awkward mannerisms.
The ward was more than just a place to wait out the worst of my mental health crisis. It was also a place to heal myself by growing compassion for the other patients.
At a time when it was almost impossible to see beyond my own suffering, the hospital showed me that my mental health issues like mine were distressingly common. My roommate—who looked to be in his early 20s—was processing traumas so pronounced that he hardly ever spoke.
The endless vigilance of the care ward was there for a reason; the ward, for me, was a kind of inverted world with the sharp edges taken away. Ward life contained me in a hermetic bubble where I could wait out the worst of my mental health crisis.
When I was hospitalized, I believed my life was over. I worried I’d never be able to work again. And initially, my post-hospital life was a struggle. I found it impossible to handle any stress. Even now, I live in constant fear of having a relapse and needing to be hospitalized again. But I’ve been able to go back to work and resume my life as a writer. I’ve been lucky enough to get the post-hospital care that I needed, with a capable therapist and effective medications.
I’ve also come to realize just how hard it is to break away from my previous shame. It took me months to tell anyone outside of a very small circle of loved ones what happened to me in 2021.
My wife—who was also raised to believe that mental health issues should be hidden from other people—had a hard time finding the support she needed after my hospitalization. Though the burden of caring for me fell to her, concerns about how people would react left her feeling anxious and alone.
I hope that Fetterman receives the care he needs in the hospital. But I also hope that people in need of psychiatric care will take the immediate steps they need to get better, without letting concerns about stigma get in the way of their healing.
Dan White is the author of The Cactus Eaters and Under The Stars: How America Fell In Love With Camping. He is working on a memoir about mental health, crisis, and recovery. You can find out more about his work at danwhitebooks.com.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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