Hospital reform gone mental Mental

Late last year, I voluntarily sought help after a suicide attempt, and was subsequently checked into a local hospital’s adolescent unit for mental health care. As I walked in for the first time, the adolescent unit (“AU” in hospital lingo) seemed exactly like I would’ve expected it to be: white walls, dead silent. My stay was helpful, no doubt, but it also made me realize how much about mental health care needs serious reform.

My room had three beds and no clock. There were words, generally profane, written on the wall, probably written with a stolen pencil (pencils are considered a hazard and must be kept in the common room at all times). My roommates switched constantly—especially towards the end of my visit, when my roommates switched nearly every day. I didn’t particularly mind. That was my biggest shock when I stopped isolating myself and began to socialize: Many of the people were truly likable people. I honestly didn’t expect to like the people I met. This stigma against the mentally ill is the biggest hurdle that people seeking help must overcome—the preordained idea that everyone with a mental illness is dangerous, unlikeable or pathetic.

The problems with these stereotypes are numerous, but one major problem stands out: People who would ordinarily seek help for depression are scared off by the idea of being seen as an outsider. This toxic mindset prevents people, especially teenagers, from getting the help they desperately need.

While inside the AU, there was a rigid schedule to follow. Some amount of time per day was designated for expressive therapies. This included visual arts, music and physical therapy. We also had group discussions with the social workers. Rarely, if ever, are there individual counseling sessions.

When we weren’t in therapy or a meal, we spent our time in one of two places: the common room, which had a bunch of chairs and occasionally a TV or radio playing, or our rooms. We spent a lot of time in our rooms. Two or three hours a day. It was terribly boring, and personally, I didn’t get anything out of it. Any of it. The first time I got real help from the hospital was when I saw an M.D. and started taking mood-stabilizers and antidepressants. The fact of the matter is, I shouldn’t have had to come to the hospital to receive that medication. Had the school provided a list of doctors local clinics or even just a message saying “Medicine can help you; it’s not hopeless,” it’s possible that I wouldn’t have ended up in the AU in the first place.

I don’t mean to say that mental hospitals are a bad place. In fact, they can be immensely helpful, especially for people who might need time to “relax.” However, that’s not to say they don’t need serious help. With the school’s new awareness of depression-related issues, we’re getting closer. But until the school system prioritizes seeking help for students, the broken system isn’t going to change.