7 Realities Of Spending Your Pre-Teen Years In A Psych Ward
Most people who suffer from mental illness begin experiencing symptoms well before adulthood. Where do these kids go? You can't just stick them into treatment with a bunch of adults, right? There are actually whole facilities dedicated entirely to mentally ill youth, and they have their own way of doing things. We spoke to several young people who have experienced these facilities, to get a better idea of exactly what goes on there. Shockingly, the answer was not "mostly freeze-tag," as we hoped.
Mental Illness Is Suitable For Children Of All Ages!
One former patient we spoke to, Amanda, told us that, although younger children were kept on a separate ward, "We saw each other in passing sometimes." She met children who were barely out of kindergarten. "One boy ... was 6, and a little redhead," she says. "But I saw him go crazy, and it took three different techs to hold him down and give him a shot." Hopefully he got the help he needed, otherwise it sounds like we've got a real-life Rorschach in the making.
Though we imagine the early days of that journal are adorable.
On the ward where Nate "stayed," for lack of a better word, the youngest child he saw was 12. He describes the kid as "very nice and very hyper." Probably a lot like your little brother who's constantly messing with you, wanting nothing more than to hang out with the cool older kids. What's a little scamp like that doing in a place like this? The boy had swallowed a bunch of pills in an attempt to commit suicide, and he was barely into puberty. Kind of puts that time you sullenly carved "Slayer" in a park bench into perspective ...
It's A Weird Cross Between Prison And Daycare
Anyone who's ever lived with little kids knows that everyone in the house adapts to their needs. Goodbye, Dr. Dre in the car and (dis)tasteful nudes on the walls; hello, Barney on the TV and LEGOs under your bare feet. Well, an inpatient facility is a household like any other. That means that everyone lives like children.
The return of juice boxes is nice, but losing most of your adolescence makes for kind of a poor trade.
"There was a playroom with a bunch of toys and one TV and a chalkboard," says Nate. "If someone was acting up, there was a 'calm down room' where they put them until they calmed down. ... There was snack time and one hour of alone time every day. I normally took a nap, so it was basically nap time. It was lights out at 9 or 10 p.m., and a nurse would check to make sure you were actually sleeping; you couldn't even be reading a book or anything."
Basically, the nurse becomes your medically prescribed mommy.
A prescription parent comes with all kinds of legal requirements -- like feeding and housing you, but also educating you. Since a secure facility can't exactly send you out to the local public school every day, they have their own little school houses right there on campus. You've got children as young as 6 mixed in with teenagers, which means you're not likely to be engaged in a rousing discussion on Russian philosophers (it's ... uh ... it's been a while since we were in school).
You get a timeout if you don't use all of the Chekhov's building blocks
you took out at the beginning of class.
"This teacher, messily dressed in a suit, would come in and teach us elementary math even though most of us were 14 to 16," Nate says.
Another former patient we spoke to, Nicole, reminisces, "They would give us those giant fuzzy posters, and they would encourage us to color or [use] Play-Doh or whatever. We had to make a project every period. When I came home, I had like five or six of those."
Nothing ups your chances for an institution-free adulthood like learning absolutely no
marketable life skills at 16.
Amanda says the classes she had were actually great. "I learned more algebra locked up than I did outside," she says. "They let you learn at your own pace, which is good because I think a lot of the people that I was with had learning disabilities. It was like private tutors almost, like if you've ever been taken out of class to get private instruction." So hey, if you're unhappy with your education, consider acquiring a hellish chemical imbalance. Maybe you get the rich-kid treatment, maybe you get Play-Doh -- given the state of the American education system, it might be worth a roll of the dice.
You Might Be Locked Up With People Who Have Way Bigger Problems Than You Do
In prison, inmates are often housed in different facilities depending on the nature of their crime. But these psychiatric wards are medical facilities, and medical conditions aren't so easy to categorize. It can be pointless to keep them separated, because someone with paranoid schizophrenia might be as friendly as a My Little Pony and someone with something as seemingly harmless as panic disorder might up and bite you. That's not a hypothetical example.
"One of the girls had a panic attack in the hallway, and she freaked out and bit a security guard on the arm," Nicole says. "There was a boy who wanted to kill his mother who tried to punch a security guard. ... On the first day, we were talking about why we were here; one kid was having a breakdown earlier in the day and [was] forced to come to group therapy. The therapist encouraged him to talk more, and he said, 'I have voices in my head. My mom was lying there. They said she needed to die.' I was looking around the group freaked out, and everyone was just nodding their heads like it was normal. This kid was sleeping across the room from me, and I wasn't prepared for that."
Technically, from then on, only one of us was sleeping in there.
Our sources were being treated for your garden-variety depression, suicidal thoughts, and, in one case, a mysterious hormonal disorder that mirrored bipolar disorder. Encountering people who are clearly worse off than you are can make you feel guilty. Nate says:
"I remember my first day; a 14-year-old girl and I were conversing, and one of the first things she asked me was, 'If you don't mind me asking, why are you here?' [I said,] 'Uh, I'm here because I wanted to kill myself.' [She said,] 'Oh ... I'm here because I tried.' Then she showed me her arms, which were covered in cutting scars. ... I felt guilty for wasting space in this place just because my father hit and screamed at me and my brothers a few times and I merely wanted to kill myself, not having the nerve to actually do it at the time."
In a "high school" without grades or sports, teenagers will find
some weird stuff to feel competitive about.
Nate eventually realized that making mental illness a competition wasn't exactly productive.
"In one of the group sessions where we went around talking about our problems, when it came to me, I tried to downplay -- even defend -- my father for his actions. Just then, a 16-year-old girl who was physically, emotionally, AND sexually abused by her father told me [my father's] actions were wrong, as it not only hurt me but also hurt me enough to make me suicidal, and everyone else agreed with her and voiced their encouragements to me. I was almost in tears. None of the patients ranked which problems were 'worse' than others, as I was doing. They only empathized with my pain and anguish, something we all had in common."
That makes therapy sound like not such a bad thing. Kind of like Cheers, but without any of the comedy. So more like Wings, we guess ...
Security Is Way More Intensive Than You Think
Security is pretty tight. You even get random strip searches. "They strip you down to your underwear and check your suitcase, as if something is going to magically appear there even though they checked them a few days before," Nicole says. We assume "suitcase" is a terrible euphemism. But at least prisoners have unfettered access to a shitcan, even if it's right in their cell, in front of God and everybody. Not so for the chronically sad.
"Someone had to unlock the bathroom and stand outside of it," Nicole says. This led to some pretty desperate measures, some of which backfired spectacularly. "One of my roommates, I noticed her on the security camera hovering over the sink one night, and I didn't know what she was doing," Nicole says. "It turned out she was peeing in it to avoid being watched in the bathroom."
"It's privacy or a clean place to wash your hands. I made the right choice."
"There were cameras everywhere," Amanda agrees, "but I've only been in one facility where they had cameras in the bedroom. There were locks on the doors. ... I was locked in my room and not allowed to leave if I did something wrong." In addition to medically approved timeouts, the juvenile house rules included leaving room for Jesus. "You weren't allowed to touch anybody," Amanda says. "I went for two years without touching anyone. I got out and someone stood too close to me in the lunch line and I almost cried." That's not the only way it was like a high school dance ...
It's The Same High School Bullshit, But Way Worse
Think back to your middle school bully: Were they the picture of emotional stability? It's actually pretty common to lash out at other people to avoid dealing with your own problems, and teenagers will be horrible under even the most sympathetic circumstances. Get a group of mentally ill teenagers together and you've got a ticking time bomb made of cattiness.
You'd think the identical hospital scrubs would put an end to most
"Can you believe she's wearing that" gossip. You'd be wrong.
"I was the youngest person on my ward at the time -- and there was a girl behind me who snapped my bra, so I told the tech, and this other girl grabs me by my shoulders and shoves me against the wall and calls me a snitch," Amanda says. Instead of prison-style gang wars, the major disruptions were over something that teens would normally handle over strongly worded and badly misspelled text messages. "There was a love triangle, and when there's a bunch of crazy people in a love triangle, it's never good," Amanda says. "One girl was dating a guy on the ward and slept with another guy, and he found out, and everybody just joined in from there." The resulting kerfuffle was described as a small-scale riot.
Still a better love story than Twilight, though.
Some Wards Are Kind Of Culty
One ward where Nicole stayed was kind of creepy in its insistence on isolation from your family. "You weren't allowed to see family in the first couple of days, because it would 'interrupt your healing,'" she says. "Only my mother and father were allowed [to visit], and it had to be set up ahead of time; they couldn't just drop by. Even siblings needed special permission. ... It was very 'we're your family now.'"
"You know the weird family you only see during the holidays?
Well, they're gonna get even weirder."
Their philosophy wasn't limited to cutting off loved ones; it included actively pitting you against them. A tweedy man inviting you to lie down on the couch and tell him about your mother is a well-worn psychiatry trope, but Nicole's therapists went so far as to provide commentary. "They were very good at making you feel alienated," she says. "Not exactly turning [me] against family, but, for example, at one point I was relating some experience with my stepfather and she said, 'Wow, it kinda sounds like your mom wasn't doing a very good job.'" Many patients' problems stem from family issues, and it's important to work through those, but it seems counterproductive to actively talk shit about the patient's momma. That's the kind of thing that gets you knifed in the 'hood (or looked at disapprovingly in the suburbs).
You Probably Won't Be Fixed
Suicidal thoughts are serious, and the places they send you in such emergency situations aren't necessarily equipped to help you with them. Even long-term facilities may be little more than a storage locker for emotional baggage.
"I've been in two different kinds of facility: a short-term facility and a long-term facility," Amanda says. "The short-term facility was a week maximum, and it was just to keep you from hurting yourself or other people. They didn't want to fix you. The long-term center was basically a really lax prison with more drugs. They would drug people ... especially the people they can't treat after three tries. They just sedate them and make sure they can't make trouble."
Which, as we've discussed, some kids can make a lot of.
If, for some reason, you're not enjoying your chemical vacation, you can always go home. You just have to lie about your mental health:
"At the end, I was just lying about what I felt and what I was thinking because I wanted out of there so badly," Nicole says. "Luckily, I got better after I got home, but not everybody is so lucky. I wasn't the only one doing that. ... If you have a whole bunch of teenagers and they hate it there, they will lie, they will do whatever it takes to get out. Maybe it'll work and maybe they'll come back or they'll die."
She's not talking hypothetically.
"One of our 'frequent fliers,'" Nicole says, "It was her fourth time, and on her last day, the therapist talked about how, 'I have been to your funerals, and I will be to more in the future, so don't start thinking this is the end. Out of 15 of you, chances are one of you will be dead before your 21st birthday, and an average of 25 percent of patients come back more than once, so I'll probably see at least four of you in the future.' ... There was one kid who was released and two weeks later he had shot himself."
As graduation speeches go, ours were a bit more to the point than
a canned address and some polite applause.
We know we're painting a pretty dismal picture, and that it's not true of every facility. Psychiatric care is important, and you shouldn't let stories like this turn you off of it. We're just saying that it's kind of a crapshoot. Because, as it is, maybe you luck out and get sent to a great place and come home with a much better grip on yourself. Or maybe you get drugged and neglected and keep repeatedly coming back for more drugs and neglect. Anyway, here's a video of some penguins slap-fighting:
Manna is very sorry she made you sad and is on standby with silly animal videos on Twitter.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Shocking Realities Of Working With Disturbed Children and 5 Ridiculous Myths You Probably Believe About Schizophrenia.