Hi besties, have you ever wondered what it’s like to stay in a psychiatric hospital? Or, are you about to go into a psychiatric hospital and don’t know what to expect–or more importantly, what to pack? I’ve got you. Hi, my name is Stephanie, and last year I had what my medical team has called “a complete mental and physical breakdown”. Love that for me.

I ended up doing two stints in a private psychiatric hospital in Adelaide. Now, I can only speak to my own experiences, but there were a lot of things I wish I’d known before checking myself in, so let me impart my wisdom, because it’s nothing like the movies, really.

What do you do all day?

I remember the morning I was admitted, I was shown to my room and left alone. I remember just sitting on the bed like ‘okay, what now? What do we… do all day?’

So, here’s the deal. As much or as little as you want. The only things you need to do each day are eat your meals and see your psychiatrist. There are group walks you can go on, group therapy sessions that introduce you to different types of therapy, mindful meditation sessions, arts and crafts sessions, and then there are games, jigsaw puzzles and DVDs in the lounge areas.

Once you get settled in, it’s pretty easy to gauge the other patients and find people you vibe with, who you can sit with at meals and hang out with. One of my friends and I decided to lean in and watch Girl, Interrupted while we were in. When in Rome, right??

Of course, it’s not exactly a summer camp, so there will likely be days where you just don’t want to leave your room, and that’s absolutely fine as well. You’re there to get better and sometimes that means taking naps every afternoon while your meds get swapped around.

Turns out a psych ward is not like the movies!!!!! Who knew, honestly.

How often will you see a psychiatrist?

You’ll see your psychiatrist regularly, and they’ll be monitoring how you’re doing, but exactly how often will be informed by your psychiatrist and your condition.

I’d see my psych every weekday, but he didn’t come in over the weekends. If any of his patients needed him to sign off on anything, the nurses would call him though. Meanwhile, other psychs would come in every day, or other patients would only see their psych every few days.

One of the most important pieces of advice I can offer is to come up with really clear goals for what you want to achieve during your stay. For my first stay, I’d been having a really difficult time coming off an antidepressant while dealing with my mental health, chronic pain and pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder. I went in with the intention of switching antidepressants, but added the vague and unachievable goal of “getting my pain under control”. I did get off the antidepressant, but my second goal ended up with me trialling a pharmacy’s worth of other meds in rapid-fire, and my stay ended up being a little over six weeks, rather than the two-to-three we’d spoken about. For my second stay, I was very clear about exactly what I wanted to accomplish, and although I didn’t put a definitive timeline on it, I was out the second I was able to go home.

Are you allowed to bring things? And what do you pack?

This is probably the most important part of your stay because it affects how comfortable you’re going to be for the duration of your stay. For my first stay, I only brought a carry-on sized suitcase and a pillow, and ended up getting my mum to bring me bags of stuff throughout the six weeks I was in.

For my second stay, I was PREPARED. Take your pillow/s from home, the hospital ones are simply Not It, and bring your quilt or some blankets along as well. It’s not so much that the beds themselves are uncomfortable, but the “blankets” are glorified sheets and you want to be comfy and have your room feel as close to home as possible.

I cannot stress this enough: bring earplugs and a sleep mask. Here’s the thing. The nurses are going to do hourly checks on you through the night, so they’ll be opening your door and shining a flashlight into the room and with enough light to see that you’re in bed, hopefully asleep. Then, there’s every possibility that you’ll be in a room next to a loud snorer, or in my case, a girl who was so sedated she’d sleep straight through her alarm for an hour every morning.

Next, clothes. Comfy clothes and pyjamas are a must, but it’s also nice to have at least one outfit that you’d wear out of the house to a movie or something, so that if you’re feeling up to it and have a visitor, you can feel “normal”. Ditto for makeup and toiletries. A fun thing I didn’t think to bring the first time around was shampoo and conditioner, like??? Did I think I was going to a hotel? I don’t know, but I was immensely grateful when one of the girls gifted me her shampoo and conditioner when she was discharged. Also, bring laundry detergent and coat hangers (wooden ones) so you can wash and hang your clothes.

It’s also nice to bring comfort items from home with you; things that remind you of life on the outside. This is especially helpful for grounding yourself during moments of anxiety or overwhelm. After I’d been in hospital for awhile, I started to feel like it was my whole world, so having some trinkets around the room reminded me of the life I was working on getting back to. I brought some framed pictures, some crystals, an essential oil diffuser, a teddy bear, a plant. Was I doing the most? Perhaps. Was it a good idea? Also yes! If there’s anything you want to bring but aren’t sure about, you can always ask your admitting nurse whether it’s okay to bring in with you.

Dark humour is not appreciated

You know how it’s not a good idea to make jokes about bombs at an airport? It’s not a great idea to make jokes about dying in the psych ward!!! The nurses will not appreciate the gallows humour and you might get moved to the high risk ward, where they’ll check on you constantly. My friend did this and she got her ass ITO-ed (that’s an Inpatient Treatment Order, ie “you can’t check yourself out because we think you’re a danger to yourself”) for three days before she was able to convince the nurses she wasn’t a danger to herself, it’s truly not worth it!!

The food is fine

Is the food great? No. Is it fine? Yes.

In my first week, I was dining with one of the girls in my ward and said that I thought the food was pretty good. She looked me dead in the eye and said “oh honey, that’s how you know you need to be in here.” I screamed! But also, she wasn’t wrong.

When you’re too sick to care about what the food actually tastes like, and you’re just thankful to be able to drag your ass to the dining room to eat food and go back to bed, it’s great. When you start feeling better, and you’re on round three of the same menu, you realise that the food is just fine.

Safety measures/nurse checks

Everything in your room is set up for you to not be able to hurt yourself. If you put too much weight on the bar in your cupboard, it’ll fall. The taps don’t have handles, the shower head is teeny tiny. You can technically lock your door, but obviously the nurses have keys. If you barricade yourself in? Guess what bestie the door has a mechanism to open the other way too.
When I first got in, they did half-hour checks on me. Once they saw that I was lying in bed for hours at a time watching TV in between naps, they switched me to hour checks, and then two hour checks. Had we not been in a pandemic, I would have been able to get day passes to leave the hospital and go do things; go for coffee, go on errands, go to the movies. Of course, all of this depends on how high risk you are. I was in a low-risk ward, but the other two wards would do 15 minute nurse checks, even five or 10 minutes if necessary.

Stay active

I learned this one the hard way. When I went in for my first stay, I was already in pretty bad shape physically from the problems I’d been having getting my chronic pain under control, but after six weeks in hospital, the muscle deconditioning I experienced was absolutely hectic. By the time I was discharged, I could only walk around the block from my house, and it’s been a real uphill battle to gain that basic strength back.

During my second stay, I took some physio equipment in so that when I felt up to it, I could do some light strengthening exercises.

The clinic also had a gym you could book time in, they did group walks every morning and had an exercise physio you could meet with, but the gym was closed during my stays, also due to covid.

That’s about it tbh! I did meet some true characters and see some hectic scenes along the way, but it’s nowhere near as full on as Hollywood would have you believe. Unlike the high drama of the movies, it’s mostly just people who are having a tough time and are trying to get better. It’s people who need support, people who need a safe space to get their meds right, and people who are taking time to process traumas, learn coping skills, and setting themselves up for better functioning life once they return home.

Above anything else, Stephanie Anderson is a Britney Spears stan. She’s also a freelance writer. You can find her @stefinitely85 on Twitter and Instagram. #FreeBritney

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