Have you ever wondered what it's like to be in a psychiatric hospital? I did, but not as a patient - as a member or staff. I volunteered at a local mental health hospital to see the reality of it. I witnessed uncomfortable truths, the good, the bad, and the very ugly. 

My job was to deliver each patient a personal questionnaire which focused on their opinions of their care, any concerns they had, and improvements that could be made. On your separate wards, I would go in and approach them for a quick discussion. Some would be more than happy to speak to me, others would actually fear me. This already gave me a red flag or two, so I decided to make my self known to them. I would come in dancing, singing, acting in a positive way. This of course got a few strange looks from the staff, who were almost always miserable and unapproachable.

"It was shocking that basic levels of protection for patients were not being carried out, as many patients were complaining of feeling unsafe and made them considerably more anxious and hindered recovery".

It got the right attention and I began talking to patients, and one lady in particular pulled at my heart strings. She had been a patient in there for five weeks and looked like a shell of a human being. She was almost always crying when we spoke. It was when she told me that a particular member of staff would glare at her and kiss her teeth at her, I decided to keep watch. True to form, she was telling the truth. This member of staff would walk past her and give her disgusting gestures, making her feel uncomfortable. I told the supervisor.

As the new girl, my complaint was swiftly swept under the carpet and she continued work as usual. Infuriating. There was however, an amazing lady who worked on one of the wards. She saw patients as people, enticed them to do arts and music activities and generally brought a light to the place. One of my biggest hang ups of that place was the way they stripped patients of their right to cigarettes. They weren't allowed out to smoke, as the NHS were trying to reduce smoking. I just thought this was disgusting... prison like. Of course, it made a lot of smokers even angrier and experiencing withdrawal symptoms. A few times I witnessed that, if they tried to go out for a fag, they were injected and taken back to their rooms for protesting their rights. I left early that day as I was just too angry to face the staff.

Structured days

In general, the days are structured to a schedule that every patient follows. Breakfast, an hour to do what you want to do in your own room or the living room of the ward, lunch, usually a therapy group of choice, family visits, dinner, and then back to your room. So really, it's a bit like prison. The staff mostly sit in the sectioned off office in the wards and ignore the patient’s requests; in my experience there were only a handful of staff members that actually took the patients seriously. There were a lot of fights on the wards between patients in the time I worked there, as the unstable were allowed to roam the living room without observation and some became aggressive. On one occasion, a young woman was horrifically attacked on the ward just before I had arrived. She was patched up and sent back to the same ward where the lady who attacked her was waiting for her. It was shocking that basic levels of protection for patients were not being carried out, as many patients were complaining of feeling unsafe and made them considerably more anxious and hindered recovery.

Group sessions were run by staff to give patients something to do during the day; this varied from art workshops to religious studies. One of the groups I worked with was psychology and wellbeing. On my third day in this group, a patient was talking a lot about themselves and their own struggles. I welcomed this patient’s input as they were usually very reserved. However, another member of staff proceeded to tell him to “shut up and let somebody else have a turn”. I have never felt so disheartened looking at his expression of shame, and once again, he retreated back into his safe space and did not say another word. After the session once the patients had left, two of the staff members found it hilarious and were mocking him. Heartbreaking.

Attitudes amongst staff

The staff that were good were amazing to work with and benefited the patient’s mentality and quality of life within the hospital. They were open to suggestions and took the patients feelings seriously. The staff that were not so good were almost despicable. The attitude was very much in the sense of “zoo keepers and the animals”, with a few that felt they were prison guards keeping criminals in cages. I got to know the staff, the good and the bad, and found that a lot of the attitude was held in dark humour. The jokes they made and snide remarks were not out of reach of the patients, which evidently frustrated them. I began to realise that the negative staff were actually part of a group, which excluded anybody that did not work to their “style” or questioned their actions. Of course, they quickly found me out to be a decent person who genuinely cared for the patients, so I was not acknowledged.

Part of my work in the hospital was to ask patients about their experience, which opened up a lot of hidden truths. One of the questions on the survey asked “Do you feel safe here?” and after collecting a days worth of surveys from four different words, 85% of the patients circled NO. What occurred to me more so was the fact that 90% of patients who did the surveys were adamant to remain anonymous, some even refusing to participate in fear they would be identified by staff.  Why could that be? I asked myself, when I first started the placement. After working there for four months, I wouldn’t blame them. Some staff members displayed very open grudges towards particular patients and a considerable amount of favoritism was also clearly identified for other patients.

I eventually left my position as a volunteer at the hospital after a young patient, who I became professionally involved with, attempted suicide in my presence. This disturbed me deeply and became too much for me to cope with. The way in which this individual was treated beforehand lead up to this event, which infuriated me further. This particular young man was left in the corner of a ward for days on end, drugged up to his eyes and became a shell of a human being. He suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was deemed not to be a risk to others, yet was left to rot like a suffering animal without human interaction or care. This was by far one of the most painful experiences I have endured in the healthcare industry.

Witnessing the good and the bad 

Working in this particular institution was a very complex experience for me. I witnessed some horrendous treatment towards patients and other staff members, but I have also met some amazing people who are passionate about mental health and wellbeing. I got to understand the way in which the NHS runs mental health hospitals, and how some staff members like to play god in such a vulnerable situation for patients. The good, the bad, and the downright disgusting was all on show for me to experience as a member of staff in this time, and I am so glad I got to see it for what it was.

I am hoping after my very detailed complaint to the hospital, and to higher authorities that changes will be made to the care within the facility and patients will be treated with the respect and care that they deserve.  Do not assume that all mental health facilities are run this way, as I have also worked in some fantastic institutions that produced high positive results for patients. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for this hospital.



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