In 2013, I spent four days in a psychiatric hospital unit on an involuntary hold where I discovered what it's really like inside a psych ward. Despite my fears of a full-blown Girl, Interrupted experience, I realized what I saw on TV was not quite how real-life psych wards work.
In the mid-1900s, psychiatric institutions were a free-for-all place to lock up anyone with any kind of problem that wasn't understood. These very depressing and inhumane places provided the inspiration for the Hollywood horror movie versions of mental institutions. However, starting in the '60s, the process of deinstitutionalization reformed the systems surrounding mental health. Facilities became less isolated, released more patients, kept stays shorter, and worked to keep admission rates lower.
Still, time spent in a psych ward isn't exactly a day at the park. I have pieced together my own story with those of other patients and the research of various psychiatric professionals to create the following list. It paints a more accurate picture of what it's like in a psych facility than what you see in the movies.
Disclaimer: This article is not to meant to deter anyone from seeking inpatient psychiatric treatment, but to give a real glimpse into modern US psychiatric facilities and their strengths and weaknesses. If you or someone you know might be suicidal or in distress, call 1‑800‑273‑TALK (8255).
Most Patients Admit Themselves Voluntarily
You Can Be Held Involuntarily For Weeks Before A Formal Hearing
Every Psych Ward Is Different
Socialization Is Strongly Encouraged
The Patients Are More "Normal" Than You Might Expect
You Have Limited Contact With The Outside World