This life: It’s not just talk

My longest acute stay to a psychiatric hospital was for more than a year and I have had a dozen admissions within eight years.

It’s much the same each time I go in – people sat around not talking to each other and just watching the television, which bores me. But in one hospital there was a lot of staff-patient contact, which I think was the influence of the ward sister. Having a family atmosphere made all the difference with the same people in the revolving door of mental health services becoming part of a group of familiar faces. After having been through the treadmill of sheltered workshops, sheltered accommodation and then back to hospital it got to feel like more of a hotel than a hospital.

Of course there was the occasional manic and psychotic episode from my fellow patients but the strangeness within the social group seems to lessen over time – you just get use to it. That and knowing what all the medications do, plus side-effects, plus watching how the staff deal with the thankfully rare crisis, I seemed to end up looking at it the way the nurses did. It is just behaviour which requires support, medication or whatever. Perhaps I have absorbed the view of the nurses a little too much but I hope this is an ethos of care.

I don’t think nurses are meant to get too involved with patients, but this is difficult when you are watching someone in acute distress. After all, it is supposed to be a caring profession. Moreover, after a year’s stay in hospital with the same nurses it becomes very difficult for them to keep that professional distance.

This is also true of sheltered accommodation and day centres. Put any group of people in a room for a year and they will get to know each other very well indeed. Those excluded by society and having problems in common seem to come to rely on each other.

Once I had a girlfriend who was a general nurse and she seemed quite idealistic about her work, at least she was while she was training. I am sure there are examples to the contrary but they seem infrequent. People who are just doing it for the money are perhaps unlikely to survive long in a stressful low paid job like that.

The one problem that springs to mind in psychiatric hospitals is that of limited staffing. Staff have to keep an eye on 20 or 30 patients which prevents them spending time with you individually.

I feel the emphasis is much more on getting the medication right than on having a chat and being sociable although without this interaction life on a mental health ward really would be hell. I’ve always managed to have some decent conversations with staff and patients – I have been ill for so long that I have got to know them quite well.

Having somewhere to socialise off the ward provided a good change of scenery – something that would benefit everyone’s sense of well-being.

Mark Ellerby uses mental health services and is a PhD student

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