Things I Saw As A Psych Ward Nurse Too Dark For Horror Films
Hearing about the abuse of the mentally handicapped makes you want to put on a skull T-shirt and dispense full-metal justice straight into someone's abdomen. But it's a depressingly common thing. Every few years, a new report comes out detailing the many, many abuses that go on in American mental health facilities, including staff beating, raping, and even killing their patients. We spoke to "Clyde," who worked as a nurse in a large psychiatric hospital, where he not only witnessed tons of abuse, but also occasionally participated in it. He says he deeply regrets it -- as if that would stay the steely (okay, well, at least woody) hand of our justice. But then he went on to explain ...
Working In A Psychiatric Hospital Slowly Strips You Of Your Humanity
Clyde never thought he'd be capable of abusing patients, until the horrifying reality of his job peeled his soul away with a rusty knife.
"Many of our residents were severely retarded," Clyde says. "One even gouged his eyes out with forks and just had cavernous holes in his head ... You start out wanting to make a difference, but after cleaning up the bedroom of a guy who digs shit out of his ass and flings it at the walls, smears it on the floor, and then grabs you and gets shit on you, you get pissed ... You might walk into the bathroom to find that someone with hepatitis ripped his scrotum open with his fingernails and then wiped his blood on the walls and the toilet, and you have to clean it up by yourself."
"This is coming up at the next salary negotiation."
We all know that the more shit you have to deal with, the shittier you eventually become. It's the "you are what you eat" rule. And no one deals with more shit, literal or otherwise, than mental hospital employees. "Staff grows to hate the people they're taking care of, and eventually have no problem beating the shit out of someone for wanting a second glass of water or wanting to go outside when the staff didn't feel like going with them."
The change from "concerned professional" to "Dickensian
gruel water tyrant" is so gradual that you barely notice it.
Now, do the harsh working conditions excuse any of that? "Hell fucking no," Clyde admits, but then ... why did he eventually join in on the abuse? Peer pressure?
The Veteran Abusers Get You To Go Along With Them By Starting Out Small
They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step ... on somebody's throat. That's how some of the staffers at Clyde's hospital got him to join them in abusing the patients. He explains: "After I started working on the floor, one of the residents started to attack a co-worker, pinching and trying to bite him. After a while, the co-worker got sick of it and swept the patient's leg Karate Kid-style and put him in a one-person hold. That's sitting behind the person with your legs on either side of theirs, their arms folded in front of them and you holding onto either wrist." Think a weaponized, full-body hug.
Like this, but with violent struggling in place of elevator music.
Now, whenever an altercation like this happens, the staff need to fill out an incident report to make sure the patient's rights weren't violated. "But," Clyde says, "afterward, the staff who swept the leg casually mentioned that he didn't think we needed to report this."
It was a test to see if Clyde could sit with all the cool kids in the back of the metaphorical bus. He passed. "I went right along with him. These residents were scary, and this dude I just met could control them. I wasn't going to tattle on him."
Someone was likely to end the day with bruises, and he'd insured it wouldn't be him.
From that point forward, Clyde's co-workers were way more open about putting the patients in chokeholds or headlocks in front of him -- those are one of the most common forms of physical abuse in psychiatric hospitals. Eventually, Clyde started doing it too, and it all began with turning a blind eye to one infraction. See, this is why Batman refuses to kill, even once.
If You Have A Soul, You'll Witness Abuse That's Impossible To Ignore
"My main job was as a lookout, watching the doors and windows to make sure the staff were able to 'deal with' the patients and not get caught," Clyde says. "That being said, I never once hesitated to jump in and help with ones who were on a rampage. My number-one concern while there was ensuring my co-workers were safe."
It's shockingly easy to develop an "Us vs. Them" mentality when "they" might bite you.
To Clyde's credit, he did eventually realize that the entire hospital was slowly turning into something out of Silent Hill after he witnessed some of the nurses almost murder a patient. "One day, I walked into the kitchen, only to find two of my co-workers feeding a resident shaving cream straight from the can. One of them was holding his mouth open while the other was squirting it in. What had he done to deserve that? He wouldn't stop screaming. He did have a loud, piercing yell that just tore through you, but there is nothing at all that warrants that kind of action. As soon as he would scream, they would cram that shit down his throat, thinking he would eventually get the hint and stop. I was horrified. I turned around and walked back out of the room and locked myself in the bathroom."
We are now going to take a duckling break to keep from hanging ourselves with our Voltron bed sheets. (They're vintage. Shut up.)
Deep breaths ...
And back to horror: "Later that night, the resident was sent to the hospital with severe stomach issues. He was in ICU for a week. He almost died. Nobody ever found out what the cause of his mystery illness was. To me, that's attempted murder."
It was also the final straw for Clyde.
Blowing The Whistle Could Get You Killed
At Clyde's hospital, whistleblowers were treated like unwanted stepchildren surrounded by open bleach containers: left alone until the problem sorted itself out. "If you ratted on someone or complained about poor treatment of the residents, you were as good as dead ... If a resident was attacking you and you screamed for help, the other staff would pretend they didn't hear you, or walk out of the room and let your ass get beat to shreds."
For those wondering how much damage a severely disabled person could do, the answer is a fucking lot.
But this time, Clyde was a witness to an attempted murder via shaving cream. There were probably traces of it in the patient's system. There was no way this was getting swept under the rug. "I went to the union president and I told him what happened. He agreed to take care of it. Absolutely nothing came of it. Word got out, and from that day on, the offending nurse had a vendetta against me and actively tried getting me fired, making up all sort of false reports about me. It was basically the end of my career ... Even though I didn't narc to management and no one actually got in trouble, I was still considered a traitor."
Apparently, mental health workers and street gangs line up surprisingly close on "snitchin'."
Clyde quit not long after that, due to his unfortunate allergy to being brutally beaten to death at work.
The Regulations Contribute To The Environment Of Abuse
To speed things along, let's all agree that whenever we say "still, though ..." what we're really saying is "that doesn't in any shape or form excuse abusing the mentally handicapped." Trust us, it will save us both a lot of time.
And duckling breaks.
According to Clyde, one of the biggest contributors to abuse in mental health facilities is the fact that hospital regulations make it impossible for the staff to do their job well and safely. Still, though ...
"There are so so so many bullshit rules that look good on paper, sound good in theory, but in real life translate into danger to all of us. Many of the rules were put in place by people who've never worked with these patients ... The majority of staff are simply a product of their environment and not sadistic animals by nature." Still, though ...
Locked doors are considered a restraint, and unlawful restraint is against the patients' rights, so most of the doors at Clyde's hospital did not lock.
Lying and saying they're pull not push can only get you so far.
"Being medicated is also considered a form of restraint. Let's say a doctor prescribes medication to prevent bad behaviors. Once the perfect combo of meds proves to be effective in ceasing negative behaviors and the resident is stabilized, in accordance with state policy, the doctor has to reduce the amount of meds the person is taking. Of course, the patient will go right back to aggressive behaviors, and the vicious cycle will begin all over again." Still, though ...
As much as we cannot fully sympathize with Clyde, we still have to acknowledge that abuse does not happen in a vacuum. There are many factors at play. Humans are animals, there is no god, the Universe is a cruel place, oh, and ill-advised hospital regulations -- all those things contribute to the atmosphere of abuse. Still, though ...
Detecting And Stopping Abuse Is Insanely Difficult
There is a hotline for people to call and report abuse at psychiatric hospitals, raising the obvious question: Why didn't Clyde drop enough dimes on his co-workers to give them all copper poisoning? He thought no one would believe him ...
"If I had called and spilled the beans, I would be considered a disgruntled employee and not believed. Staff might break up with a husband or boyfriend, who then decide to report what their ex told them about goings on at work. This has happened before, and they were all dismissed as retaliatory exes."
"Don't worry, though. Our new system has effectively reduced abuse complaints to zero!"
The abuse hotline is essentially meaningless because, well, so many people abused it. Wait, is that ironic? Or just deeply, deeply depressing? Hospitals are also reluctant to believe residents when they claim abuse, because there are assholes on both sides of the padded cell. Clyde explains: "Even if they were telling the truth, staff could often coach patients on what to say when the police did an investigation. A lot of these people were highly susceptible to suggestion. However, many high-functioning residents would make false accusations against staff to get them in trouble. Everyone knew who those residents were, so even if they told the truth about being abused, it was dismissed out of hand because of their history of lying and storytelling."
Still, though ...
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Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Shocking Realities Of Working With Disturbed Children and 5 Things Movies Don't Tell You About Mental Institutions.
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