What Is It Really Like to Stay in A Mental Hospital?

January 20, 2015 Natasha Tracy

The idea of staying in a mental hospital can be scary, but what is it really like to stay in a mental hospital? Experiences vary, but mine wasn't so great.

I was diagnosed with bipolar about 16 years ago and it took years for me to find an effective treatment. At the time, I was very suicidal but I wouldn’t go to a hospital. I said, and I really meant, “I would rather die than go to one of those places.” But, much to my surprise, a few years later, when I was again very suicidal, I checked myself into one of those places. I stayed in a mental hospital.

What Are Mental Hospitals Like?

Mental hospitals, or psychiatric wards (which is, technically, where I was), are all different. Some offer the basic service of keeping you alive while others offer all types of therapies and treatment. Some are really designed for shorter term stays, like three days, while others are more able to handle longer stays such as those of a few months. It really does vary. And I would say that the quality of care available at different mental hospitals vary as well.

What Was My Stay at a Mental Hospital Like?

I admitted myself to the mental hospital after tearfully explaining to too many professionals in the emergency department that I was acutely suicidal. Doctors, of course, made the ultimate decision to admit me. Once there, they went through the few things I had brought with me, confiscated my medication (except the birth control pill) and showed me to a bed (it was late by the time I got there – hours in the emergency room to blame).

Not surprisingly, I was in pretty bad shape so every little thing seemed like an ordeal. I brought, quite intelligently, my own tissues and used far too many of them (those given out in the hospital are scratchy and unpleasant if you’re going to cry your way through the days).

The next day a general doctor came by to assess my overall health. Basic blood tests were run, my blood pressure was checked, that sort of thing. And then my psychiatrist (who worked at the hospital) came by. He promptly changed my medications drastically. Not surprising considering how badly I was doing but rapid medication changes are highly unpleasant under any circumstances. It seems to me, though, that this type of treatment is more common in the mental hospital as doctors know that any side effects that come up will be medical supervised and while unpleasant, are likely not dangerous.

The idea of staying in a mental hospital can be scary, but what is it really like to stay in a mental hospital?The next morning I woke up to a nurse shaking me awake and yelling at me to come and have breakfast in the common room. I said to the nurse, “I can’t see.”

However, she didn’t hear me, she didn’t believe me or she didn’t care because the last thing I remember was her leaving my room yelling at me to go have breakfast.

At that point I realized something. I realized that if I looked straight down, I could see my toes. I didn’t know why I could only see my toes, but somehow, that day, I made it to the common room and ate breakfast, only looking at my toes.

What had happened, of course, was side effect. For me, the medication was so strong I couldn’t wake, and when I was forcibly awoken, I remained so stoned that my eyelids, physically, wouldn’t open. This gave me the impression of blindness but, really, it’s just that I could only life my eyelids a tiny amount and thus could only see my feet.

I saw my psychiatrist again that day and explained what had happened. While I was rather disturbed by the experience he didn’t seem concerned in the least. I can’t remember if we adjusted things at that point or if the side effect wore off on its own. I saw him most days and we tweaked things regularly.

I was then introduced to group therapy – an every morning event – and art therapy --- every other day. And that was it for the therapies offered. It was pretty lackluster.

What It Was Like for Me to Stay in the Mental Hospital

In my case, as I was in a non-locked ward and I had signed myself in, I could sign myself out for short periods of time too so while I was “in” the mental hospital, I actually spent a lot of time in the park next door.

I will say that while I was there, they mixed up medications twice – I have no idea why. Maybe a doctor who writes too fast, maybe too many changes at once, who knows. But the nurses never took kindly to being told that.

I will also say that I thought the nurses were mostly crap. While I’m sure it varies all over, my experiences with them were mostly negative. When I went to speak to them at the desk, they would literally ignore my presence and go on about their conversations as if I wasn’t there. And I, being extremely sick, was in no position to assert myself. It’s like they thought they should ignore me because I was “crazy.”

I was also allowed to use the phone (one per floor) when I wanted – not that I really wanted to talk to anyone.

I had visitors and I don’t remember there being any set hours for their visiting. Someone dropped off books and another took me home so I could shower there instead of at the hospital.

All in all, it was really unpleasant. But then, I was so depressed and so suicidal, I can’t imagine anything being anything but unpleasant.

I cried my way through two weeks there until I and my doctor thought I was okay to go home. When I admitted myself I never thought I would stay that long. I thought they would keep me from killing myself for a couple of days and that would be it. But, instead, my doctor did want to see an improvement of some sort before I left.

In my next article I’ll sum up what I learned in the mental hospital and whether I think others should go to mental hospitals.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or Google+ or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at Bipolar Burble, her blog.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2015, January 20). What Is It Really Like to Stay in A Mental Hospital?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

January, 21 2015 at 10:22 pm

I had attempted suicide and when I woke up in the hospital, I remember them telling me I had two choices: either I went to stay in the mental hospital on my own or they forcefully admitted me. Either way, I did not want to go but if I had not made the choice to admit myself, I probably would have had to stay much longer than I actually did. We all wore grey sweat suits and the nurses didn't actually seem to care about us. I remember thinking that I didn't belong there, that the people there were actually insane and I was nothing like them. I mostly stayed in my room and cried. The only person who served to be of any help to be there was my room mate. She was an older woman who mostly stayed in our room and read books. She was always very sweet to me and she often told me that, while she understands that all I want to do is cry, I needed to try. She told me that as long as I tried, I would feel better. I did voluntarily admit myself, but I was not allowed to leave. I was allowed three phone calls a day. One after breakfast, one after lunch, and one after dinner. I called my mom every time. I think the worst thing sh about the whole experience was that it was in no way helping me with my depression or anxiety. Instead, I was allowed to cry in my room for as long as I wanted. I felt like a zombie and the whole thing felt unreal, like it was a strange dream. I never want to go back.
Thank you for sharing your story.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 26 2018 at 1:15 am

I cannot fathom why/how the people who need human kindness, compassion, and are most vulnerable get treated unfairly and inhumanely. I am soo oo desperate for help but I just hide at home crying, unable to leave, or go to work cuz I can't stop crying and wanting to die--which i'm not afraid of and would be welcomed. the thought of these places is worse than hell. It IS the vision I've always had of hell since I was a child! I hope you, & your roommate are happy now...

January, 21 2015 at 5:32 pm

first stay was the must traumatic event of my life. Second stay was a low stimulus environment. It was painfully boring and not helpful. Just happy to get the right diagnosis and meds the second time around. I was always locked in...

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Noah Reid
September, 27 2018 at 9:48 am

i hated it so much to it was the worst part of my life 2 weeks of no entertainment was not fair one time i was playing with a ball and then they took it away

January, 21 2015 at 4:51 pm

I was brought to a psych ward by my EAP the first time where I was severely overmedicated and traumatized by the whole experience. Shortly before this I had told my mom about my step father molesting me as a child. My mother did NOT believe me. The second time my dad called an ambulance after I had overdosed on pills and cut myself. The third time I was taken by police escort from my GP's office where I was treated over a year for depression and anxiety, without ever being referred to a psychiatrist. In hospital the nurses were cold and uncaring without exception. I saw a pdoc very briefly once a day who prescribed medication that made me feel like giving up completely. The only thing that kept me hanging on was my anger about being forced to do something I didn't want to do, and that was stay in that hell hole taking mind bending meds. I was going to do whatever was required of me to get out of that place. Art therapy was a joke. I was a grown woman playing with crayons. I felt like I was in kindergarten. Exercise was just as bad because I was so overmedicated I could barely move. All in all it was not an experience I would wish on anyone.

January, 21 2015 at 3:50 pm

i ended up is a psychiatric hospital ward in 2003, and I have never been back. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I had psychosis and mania with high anxiety. I was forced to stay seven weeks. At first I was scared of the other patients then I realised the enemy was the staff. I had repeated blood drug tests because they didn't believe me that I had never taken drugs. At first they allowed me to wrap my arms and legs around a male nurse for comfort as I was scared of needles, later they punished me for developing feelings for said nurse. I got the flu but was not allowed to see a doctor other then a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist didn't treat me for the flu. They drugged me at night with Valium but vallium made me lose my inhibitions so the next day they would punish me for doing what I did on the vallium. I was highly stressed about the war so after I had smashed the VCR one of the nurses played the news 24 hours per day. I was bored and this lead to more agitation. One nurse tried to help me find Gid. I was not suicidal or a danger to myself or others. My parents would have been able to deal with me better at home.
Ten years later u tried to go back to same hospital because I was suicidal and they turned me away.
I have since heard that a male patient would not use the hospital when he was suicidal because he was raped in it last time.
Most of the violence was structural so no one individual could be blamed.
I don't believe they helped me at all.. I had the worst low of my life two weeks after hospital and I survived even two suicide attempts because if the live and support of my family.
My partner was put in a Pyschiatric Emergency Care Unit after a suicide attempt for three days. They did not have any therapy or treatment besides medications. The nurses stated in the "fishbowl" and watched patients on CCTV. He got one visit from nurses for follow up care. The paperwork was not done and it made it hard for him to claim his income protection insurance. No discharge planning done and he wasn't released to me because I was only the girlfriend he was released to the care of his mother who lived in a different state.
There are good hospitals out there but they are not in my area unfortunately.

January, 21 2015 at 3:08 pm

I can honestly say nothing really bad about my various hospital stays. I was so desperate and suicidal, that anything was better than the hell I was going through. Nurses were busy, because they are short staffed. If you want to talk to somebody, you have to make a point to bring it to their attention. I saw good doctors. When I left I had appointments for a psychiatrist and a therapist. Now, don't shoot me for what I'm about to say but, I loved the food. 3 hot meals a day and snacks. I wasn't getting that at home, so I always joke that if and when I go back, at least I know I'll be eating good. lol

January, 21 2015 at 2:40 pm

I've been in a hospital for psychiatric reasons 4 times. The first 3 times were in acute care facilities. These were all wards in a general hospital, my stays were all about 1-2 weeks. When I was in the hospital the third time, I was referred to a longer term facility, where the average stay is 2-3 months. My therapist, parents, and I all agreed that I was ready to leave around the four month mark, but due to some issues setting up outpatient care I was in for nearly 5 months. I was discharged 12/23. I was pretty okay with the acute centers, although they didn't do much for me. My long term stay was terrible. I hated every second, but I pushed through and I'm glad I did. After leaving, I feel safe, stable, and happy! I've been going through therapy for probably 3 years, and nothing has ever done what that psychiatric center did for me.

Taylor Arthur
January, 21 2015 at 8:09 am

I laughed out loud over you saying, "I'd rather die than go to one of those places." Oh my gosh, I said that, too! And then, when the day finally came, I begged my husband to find me one that was more "country-club" like! Why aren't there any Club-meds for us crazies? Why all scary nurses and metal doors? I was so scared the 8 days I stayed in-patient, mostly because of the other patients . . . it would be so much better to build mental hospitals that actually soothed instead of terrified the patients. We'll have to work on that, won't we?
Take care, great article.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 26 2018 at 1:07 am

... huge HUge HUGE concern for me as I'm already teetering but I won't die like a bloodied dog after being hit by a car. it was so sad and so sickening. i am terrified that that dog was me, it is me. and i will die alone broken and dead
i do hope you've found comfort in life and in yourself

January, 21 2015 at 7:52 am

Hi, I found this very very interesting, i live in Ireland and have had several admissions to hospitals in the last 15 years and what I have experienced has been almost exactly the same as described above, except for the nurses part, they were mostly good in my situation. Anyway the reason this is so interesting is that lack of funding is the excuse we hear in ireland for the problems on the ward i.e. therapies and supports as well as physical environment, although our hospitals sound a bit worse than yours isnt it amazing that we have the same experience. Im really blown away by the similarities.

January, 21 2015 at 7:44 am

The most harrowing thing I experienced when I was committed to the State Mental Hospital my inability to use the phone. I was taken straight to the hospital from the courtroom (50 miles away), and my husband, who was in the courtroom had no idea where they were taking me. I am deaf, and being unable to use the patient phone, I requested either a phone with a loud speaker or a TTY. The hospital didn't have one, and the only speaker phone was the one at the nurses' station and I was told patients weren't allowed to use it. I wanted desperately to reach my family to let the know where I was. I pleaded to no avail; meanwhile, my husband was calling all over the place trying to find out where I was and getting nowhere. This continued for 3 days. Here I was locked up against my will in a mental hospital and no one who cared about me knew where I was. I finally requested to speak to as patient advocate, and he helped me write out a complaint. He turned in my complaint and also one of his own asserting that the hospital was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by not accomidating my disability by providing me a means to communicate on the phone. Within that same day, I was allowed to use the nurses' phone to call my husband. The thing that was hardest for me was how inflexible all the rules were. That inflexibility caused me more mental grief than my mental illness!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 25 2017 at 5:25 pm

Hi Becky, i had a similar experience as yours--i mean no offense to anyone w a mental illness, but it seems like some people look at the disabled and think we are mentally ill or developmentally delayed/retarded and treat us like infants with zero intelligence. I have come across so much ADA noncompliance it makes me ill. I was born with a genetic abnormality that has caused me to become immunologically compromised with neurological and motor problems and i am also hard of hearing with severe astigmatism (deaf in my left ear). In court they would not accommodate my hearing or vision differences and i had zero clue what was happening!

Courtney Blair
January, 21 2015 at 6:46 am

I only stayed 2 days. I pretty much told either they would discharge me or I was leaving AMA. I was depressed and severely bulimic and was put on a floor with psychotic and alzheimers patients. It was never quiet. There was no sleep. The only therapy was putting together a puzzle and playing Wii. It was nothing but babysitting. It was by far the most stressful situation I have been in. I will never, NEVER go back!

Charmaine Langley
January, 21 2015 at 6:41 am

Thanks for sharing Natasha.
I too have been in a mental hospital for 3 weeks way back in 2002, and one thing I can say is that it was niether the worst nor the best place to be. Worse was the reason I ended up there, but then came the isolation from the world. But the blessing in disguise was finally putting a name to what I was going throuhg, and a concrete treatment plan in place for me to live by.
I don't always win, but years of therapy have give me much insight.
The mental institution was doctors, nurses (the most unfeeling, uncaring they could find) and group sessions. I hated that initailly, I had nothing to say. These people, I could not relate to. They did not seem real, it felt as they'd be placed there to trick me and get me to speak. But slowly my brain unravelled, and I became not only accepted intothe group therapy, but was regarded as a person with real value to add, and people cared what I had to say. Even asked me my views and wanted to hear.
Then there were the 'creative' classes. I hated that. Of course, I have no gift, so why whould they want me to explore something, do something. But I then made a leather belt, which I still own. I revived painting (just a tad), but what I did find was time-out. And I learnt that it was perfectly okay to tell the world I too like to stop.
So Natasha, thanks again for sharing.
My brief story:
Like most bipolar folk, I have comorbid anxiety and ADHD. The anxiety was the reason I ended up there. I woke one morning to a 'dead' body. I could not move, and my husband thought I was just making an excuse to not to go to work. He forced me out of bed, and by crawling my way to the bathroom, and then just giving up, I lay 'dead' on the floor. At the time, no-one had told me I was bipolar with comorbid anxiety. I was a depressive, and like much of the population believed, I was using my 'sorry' self to seek attention.
Long story short - I ended up in the mental hospital. My 'dead' self was revived. Honestly, I thought I'd had a stroke, as nothing moved. But slowly, with intervention, I was functional again. Saw the psychiatrist 3x a day, and that was when the diagnosis for bipolar and anxiety were made. It was here that I confronted my true self, and the first time I felt that a psychiatrist actually listened. I had always believed that when I was not 'down and out', but rather riding the wave, was well, just normal. When we slowly unravelled what I'd done, thought, been up to, in the past, it was clearly evident - I was bipolar. Years ago I had been told I was manic depressive, needless to say, that was old terminology, and with no explanation, it sounded like someone was trying to label me MAD! So I did not return.
And the cycle of destruction continued. So while I hated being in the institution, and cut off from my husband and daughter (then 7), I can truly say that that was the beginning of many steps to get to where I am today.
And I'm not okay often, but I get it. I understand it. And it makes living with me just a tad more pleasant.

January, 21 2015 at 6:13 am

I was in a psychiatric ward for two days following a suicide attempt my senior year of college. It was at once a terrifying experience and also a bit of a relief. Terrifying in the sense that I thought to myself "I don't belong here" and a relief to finally have my depression addressed and be able to talk about it.
Thank you for sharing your story.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Katie floyd
August, 29 2018 at 12:13 am

hi my name is katie! And I'm currently dealing with depression. how did it make you feel? It makes me feel like I have no emotions like I'm here but I'm not here. honestly I feel like I'm losing my mind.

August, 29 2018 at 7:56 am

Hi Katie,
What you just said about not feeling anything and like you're here but not here is actually common in depression. It does manifest differently for different people. You definitely aren't losing your mind although I can understand how it might feel that way. Make sure you get professional help because depression can and does get better.
- Natasha Tracy

Anthony Metivier
January, 20 2015 at 11:31 pm

Thanks for sharing these experiences. You're right that they are not the nicest of places.
I had a similar experience from the manic side of the playing field. They stuck me in the acute card ward at first for an entire month. This was basically plastic cages observed from the nurses station, which was also behind transparent plastic.
After finally relenting and taking medication, I wound up in general care for a month. But they released me too soon, so I was back in again for yet another month.
Horrid experience and lots more to say about it. But I guess I wouldn't trade it for the world because who knows what would have happened if I went undiagnosed for much longer.
Thanks again for sharing your story!

January, 20 2015 at 9:40 pm

I have been in 4 different hospitals and the variation is interesting. One was a county hospital and that scared the crap out of me. My biggest struggle is that we know some of the best things to do when you are struggling is to eat healthy and to exercise. None of the hospitals I went to were able to provide these. The last time I went to UCLA and unfortunately once in the Psych ward they would not let me see an internist. In the end my symptoms were caused by Lithium toxicity that induced a temporal lobe seizure. Disappointed they wouldn't listen to me.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 27 2018 at 9:31 am

youre not the only one i went to a hospital for two weeks and i turns out while i was in the hospital my freind died from strangulation in the shower

January, 20 2015 at 4:08 pm

It's not a comforting place is it? Some even find it traumatic.

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