Hospitalisation: Daily life and treatment

Most people we spoke to had spent time in hospital in relation to their mental health and you can read more about being admitted and leaving hospital here: Hospitalisation: Being admitted and leaving. People spoke about staying in acute units, mood disorder clinics or adolescent wards of general hospitals, forensic hospitals, private psychiatric hospital wards, and a few experienced the old stand-alone mental institutions, many of which have been closed in Australia.

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Day to day life
Medical treatment and alternative therapies
Relations with staff

Chris described the old public psychiatric institution as ‘like being in prison’ even though he was there as a voluntary patient. He found being submissive was what got him out.

Day to day life

People could have very short stays in hospital (e.g. overnight), or could stay there for months, and a couple of people stayed for several years. Some people who stayed in hospital for a long time experienced being moved around between different wards.

Brian described the difference between the acute and non-acute wards at the forensic hospital he spent several years in.

Although it could be difficult for some to remember everything about their stay in hospital, most people had some strongly negative memories of being in hospital. The visual and spatial layout of the ward or constant surveillance could exacerbate people’s sense of feeling unwell. Tanai said ‘I was on 24 hour watch… and that drove me insane’. Carlo described feeling as though he was in a ‘fish bowl with glass everywhere’.

Being in hospital for the first time could be frightening. Helen and Nicky felt uncomfortable staying in a shared ward: other patients were ‘a bit scary’ and there was ‘a lot of stealing going on’. Brendan and Brian both spent time in an acute ward. Brendan didn’t think acute wards were places where ‘you get well’ because in his experience there was ‘too much going on’ and it was frightening when people were ‘crying’ and ‘yelling’. A few people said they struggled to sleep in hospital, like Gurvinder who said ‘[you] can’t get to sleep there ever’. Susana was in hospital for one night. She couldn’t sleep and didn’t think it was ‘the right thing’ for her.

Maria didn’t like being in hospital. She was shy and there were ‘strange’ people there.

The lack of freedom was an important aspect of their experience for some. Anna didn’t like being ‘being cooped up’. Sarah said she felt ‘trapped… just like a prisoner’. Simon described being ‘shackled’ and restrained. The hospital staff didn’t take into account his past experience of sexual assault and he said being restrained was ‘re-traumatising’. He felt he had fewer rights as a patient in a hospital setting than ‘a prisoner’ would have in gaol. Several people tried to leave hospital without telling staff. Allen was taken to hospital by the police and was there for three months ‘heavily against my will’ and described running away from hospital several times. Maria tried to get out: ‘I would constantly go up every five second, go up to the door and open it, which was of course… locked’.

For others, the days in hospital were boring. Helen said she wanted more things to do instead of ‘just sitting there and moping and thinking, oh, life is bad’. Most of the time people were left alone with the other patients. Lisa and Tanai were in hospital when they were adolescents and Lisa questioned whether it was good for them to be ‘constantly surrounded by’ other teenagers who were unwell. Tanai described a time when another young patient asked her roommate, who had been diagnosed with bulimia nervosa, if she could ‘show her how’.

However, for a few people, there were positive aspects to being in hospital. They mentioned caring relationships that developed between patients in the hospital and some made a point of helping others. Paddy tried to help people he saw in hospital and described it as a ‘community of people who are all unwell together’.

When Niall was in hospital when he was 21 he made friends and has always preferred being with people ‘with similar experiences’.

Simon now says he has a more positive experience of hospital and goes out of his way to help others. He feels he is now respected by the nurses and he shows them respect too.

Some people commented on improvements in the mental health system. The separation of male and female wards was one example of this. Nicky had experienced mixed wards in Australia and the UK, which she found unsuitable because she said her illness increased her sexual drive. She said there was much more awareness now of the need to separate men and women. However, when Simon, who is transgender, asked to be moved from a women’s ward to a men’s ward when he was well into his gender transition, he was refused.

Medical treatment and alternative therapies

Most people were given medication during their stay in hospital and quite a few were also offered other therapies including talking therapies (see Talking therapies). Some mentioned that they refused to take medication. Others felt they were under a lot of pressure to take medication, and a few were glad, later on, that they had taken it because it made them better (See also Medication: Choice and Non-compliance). However, a few people described confusion over what medicine they were taking, and poor communication with staff could lead to added stress.

Michelle remembers being treated roughly and forcibly injected medication after she had a disagreement with the pharmacist who gave her a new pain medicine that she hadn’t been told about.

Bernadette felt very paranoid when she was in hospital and was afraid to drink the water and kept checking the pills. She describes being pinned down and injected.

Simon and Maria were given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Simon said he was forced to have ECT and says it took ‘away huge chunks of memory’ which have never returned. Since having ECT, Simon said he has developed problems with concentration, for which he sees a neuro-psychologist. He is worried about being forced into having ECT in future. In contrast, Maria said ECT ‘worked’ for her.

Relations with staff

People had positive and negative experiences with staff (see also Experience with mental health practitioners, psychiatrists, counsellors and others). Bernadette had very negative experiences when she was preparing to leave hospital. In her opinion, the reports for the Mental Health Review Board were full of ‘errors of facts’. When she reported the errors to a registrar they were changed.

Ann felt the nurses didn’t pay much attention to the patients, or to what the psychiatrists said. She had a ‘bit of a power struggle’ with them.

Insensitivity of staff towards a person’s individual experiences, or not respecting their ‘rights’, was mentioned by some, like Sarah who had ‘a sense of not being heard’, and of having ‘no control over any of the decisions that were being made’. This could relate to important decisions about treatment but also moment to moment experiences of life on the psychiatric ward. Bernadette said that when she was in the intensive care unit she was only allowed to smoke by arrangement up to twice a day and it ‘drove [her] absolutely mental’. She became upset and agitated and ended up being put in seclusion as a result. She later found out the nurses had put on her notes that she was ‘very intrusive and demanding’.

Simon, who is transgender, was a year into his gender transition when he went to hospital. Hospital staff refused to treat him as a male, withdrew his testosterone medication and told him it was all in his head.

Given how unwell Carlo was there were many things that frightened him. He ended up writing a 12 page letter to the hospital after his stay about how to ‘treat someone in [his] situation’.

A few others had positive experiences. Lisa felt ‘quite supported’ when she was in a private hospital when she was 19. Niall described the psychiatrist in hospital as ‘gentle’. Brendan felt ‘safe’ when he was in a mood clinic because there were people there he could talk to if he had thoughts of harming himself. When Cindy was struggling to sleep in an acute ward because her roommate kept turning the bathroom light on, she was given a private room.

After Brian was transferred from prison to a psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, he had ‘nothing but praise’ for the staff.

Some recognised that the staff had a challenging job and praised their ability to deal with what was happening. Maria advised others experiencing mental health problems to be ‘patient for your recovery, patient with the nurses, patient with your psychiatrist’.

Despite the fact that Tanai said she could be violent and ‘nasty’ when she was unwell, the staff were ‘kind’ to her. She described time in the ‘fish bowl’, which they used to calm her down.