The heartbreaking lessons I've learned from working in an adult psychiatric hospital.
When I was 23 and freshly out of college, I wanted to get hands-on experience working at a psychiatric hospital. I was curious about other career paths in the mental health field, such as nursing or counseling. I figured that getting real experience was the best way to see if this was the field for me.
I have my battles with mental health, so I wanted to use my experience to help others. From my past and ongoing experience with mental illness, I had many valuable tools at my disposal to help my patients. It’s a challenging journey (and still is), but helping others is something that can always help you gain perspective and understanding.
When I got the job, I was thrilled; I was ready to start this new adventure and learn all that I could. Overall, I was thrilled working at the psychiatric hospital. My coworkers were friendly and supportive — it was a good work experience.
I got exposure to so many different types of mental health cases, and I met some truly unique people along the way. I learned a lot about how psychiatric disorders can develop and what they can look like in the long term for people who live with a mental illness.
Here are the four life lessons I learned from working in a psychiatric hospital.
Childhood trauma can affect someone for the rest of their lives
Childhood trauma is something that is not spoken about too frequently. As children, we cannot vocalize our pain, or the environment we lived in may not have allowed open dialogue like that.
The trauma that occurs in childhood is recognized as an adverse childhood experience. A negative childhood experience is something that happens in childhood that has the potential to be traumatic. If the experience was traumatic or not, it’s still something that has somehow affected their lives.
An adverse childhood event can be abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction that can affect a child. It’s important to understand that as kids develop, they carry these experiences with them.
Whatever the case may be, adverse childhood events play a big part in someone’s mental health throughout life. I started to notice that many of my patients were either abused, assaulted, or suffered some traumatic event in their lives — childhood and adulthood.
Adverse childhood events can lead people down a road of rocky mental health/illness, chronic health problems, and even substance use. Many of the patients in the hospital were shut off, addicted to substances, or were so far gone from themselves.
Don’t EVER do drugs
Please stay away from them and don’t even try them. It can lead you down a horrible road.
Not all the patients we saw were addicted to a substance, but a large majority were. There were countless times I have seen a patient come in detoxing off some substance.
I’ve seen alcohol withdrawal that caused heart issues and temporary tremors, someone on meth who was ready to punch me in the face because I was upsetting her. Other times I have witnessed someone coming off of hard party drugs that landed him in the psychiatric hospital.
The apparent risk for drug use can be potential overdose — but as long as that’s avoided, then it’s OK? Not really. There is a thing called drug-induced psychosis, where a substance directly causes an episode of psychosis to occur.
I have seen many patients come through the hospital in a drug-induced psychosis. Going through psychosis is terrifying and utterly horribly. Psychosis is when someone loses touch or altogether leaves reality.
When someone is coming off of a substance, with drug-induced psychosis or not, there can be agitation and aggression on the patient’s end. This is common, and the patient’s behavior isn’t always reflective of who the person is.
But regardless, there can be crises within the hospital that could lead to a dangerous situation.
Everyone should know crisis de-escalation
Crisis escalation is a valuable tool that can save lives. Understanding what to do and not what to do can bring down a crisis or prevent one from occurring.
There are good techniques to reduce tension when someone gets to the point where they are yelling, screaming, shouting, and maybe even threatening.
There are four critical parts to crisis de-escalation: undivided attention, be nonjudgmental, focus on feelings and allow silence. Visit Crisis Prevention Institute to learn more about crisis de-escalation.
Also, knowing the signs of someone escalating and whose anger is rising is essential to help determine safety for you and those around you.
While I worked at the hospital, I spent roughly half of my time there on the crisis team for the adult units. I played a small role in each crisis we went to. Sometimes, it would be a patient who was unwilling to take meds that they needed. At times it could be violent and dangerous out of nowhere.
While working at the psych hospital, I learned that observing someone’s behavior can help you understand emotionally to prevent a crisis. The use of de-escalation was a must around the hospital and is something that we all should know.
Being able to deescalate a situation that has the potential to go badly is a critical step in understanding how to maintain safety. Aside from this, the staff and staff behavior did influence the overall climate of the unit.
You can affect others more than you think
As staff members of the unit, we always needed to be alert and ready to help. We were there to keep people safe. But we had a lot of issues with staffing which led to overworked employees.
Sometimes that sour attitude carried into our job, so we weren’t always the shining happy faces that patients needed. Unfortunately, that is just how it is in mental health care.
I saw how the behavior of staff directly influenced the patients. If the team was tense, patients were anxious. That’s when I realized just how much of an impact we can have on other people.
The behavior that we exhibited as technicians on the adult units needed to be warm and inviting. We could not create an opposing team like that could lead to negative patients. But it’s hard when you consider the long-term workers at the facility.
Through the people I have met, I’ve learned valuable lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.