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psychiatric hospitals guide

May talks about her experience of being admitted into a psychiatric hospital, offering tips and guidance for those who may find themselves in a similar situation.

Sometimes the best place for us to get better from a mental health crisis is to go into an inpatient unit. The idea of going into a psychiatric hospital can be terrifying – when I used to think of a psychiatric ward I thought of horror movies and straight jackets and people screaming all the time. The reality is often far from that – the best way I can think of to compare a unit to is to a boarding school of people who are pretty depressed or unwell. There are fun times, there are low times, but overall it isn’t as bad as you might initially think it would be. I would say some of my best memories and my closest friends are from my time in hospital. 


I first went into a psychiatric ward when I was 14 years old following a suicide attempt. I went back a further 2 times when I was 15 and when I was 16. At the time there wasn’t a huge amount that I could find about what to expect, what to take, or what I would even be doing in hospital. I went into hospital for my depression, but I was on a general mental health ward so there were people with psychosis, OCD, severe anxiety, bipolar and a whole host of other illnesses. In the hospital where I was at, the eating disorder unit was a separate unit as they required more specialist care. I only have experience in the ward that I was on which was a CAHMS ward.


KEY points

  • If you’re of school age you will most likely still be going to school every day. You will find that most under-18 hospitals have a school attached to them. Don’t be stressed if you can’t keep up with all the work – I went a year behind in school and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Your recovery is the most important thing. 

  • Often staff will try and deter people from developing close relationships, in spite of this, you will get really close to some of the people you’re in a hospital with. There will be people you get on well with and people you won’t get on so well with. 

  • It’s scary for everyone! The first few days in hospital are terrifying – but it will get better. Be kind and gentle to yourself. You don’t need to interact with everyone if you don’t want to, but the sooner you do, the easier being there will become. 

  • Institutionalisation is a thing. Sometimes, being in hospital can feel safer than being in the outside world. It’s really important to remember that although being in hospital might feel like your whole world, it isn’t.

  • You will be able to go home sometimes. Usually, you will need to work your way up to being allowed to go home for a day or a weekend. It takes time, and while it can be frustrating, it’s the same for everyone. But your family and friends in some places can visit.

  • You might be there for a while, the average stays in inpatient units can be 2-3 months but they can be considerably longer.

  • People will be observing you all the time – there are varying levels of observations where staff check on you. The most difficult one is called ‘1-to-1 arm’s length’ which is when a staff member is within arms reach of you constantly (even when you are on the loo!). After this, there is 1-to-1 (not in arm’s length). After this, staff will observe on increments of 15 minutes, the maximum would be an hour.

  • You might see some difficult things, for example, seeing your friends being restrained by staff or serious cases of self-harm. It’s important that you talk about these things whilst you are in there and try not to bottle up any feelings they may cause.


what to take with you

Inpatient units can often be quite particular about what you can or can’t take into hospital with you. They are risk-averse and so essentially anything that you could potentially harm yourself with is a big nono. Additionally, they may take your phones away from you, and there’s a lot of sitting around doing nothing so it’s important that you’re prepared with things to keep you occupied! Here are a few things that I would recommend that you take with you:

  • Books. So many books. Some hospitals don’t allow people to have their mobile phones so books will become your escape! I found fantasy books the best. 

  • Notebooks and drawing pads – as above. Writing and drawing are also great outlets of creative expression, something that can really help with managing your illness sometimes. 

  • Some units won’t let you have pencils or pens, so get some pastels or crayons or things that you can draw and write with but are soft. 

  • Flip flops – often you will have your own bedroom but bathrooms are sometimes shared. Wear flip flops in the shower!

  • Take some pictures and posters to stick up on your wall to make your room feel as homely as possible.

  • Comfy clothes – while it’s important to get dressed every day, you’ll be spending quite a bit of your day just hanging about. I was in the hospital when I bought my first pair of tracksuit bottoms and they were a lifesaver. 

  • Roll-on deodorant – lots of hospitals won’t allow you to have aerosol sprays, so roll-on deodorant and gel-based hair products etc are useful. 

  • Vitamins – hospital food can be pretty gross or stodgy sometimes. Ask your nurses if you can bring in some vitamins that they can administer to you with your medication every day. 

  • Something that smells good – a lavender pouch, or some perfume put into a plastic bottle. Sometimes you just want to smell home.

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