Recently I read an article published by ABC News that claims hospital psychiatric wards are now like prisons. It pointed out that facilities across the country use paper gowns for patients, contain no artwork on the walls, and no bathroom doors for privacy.
I got me thinking when I worked in two inpatient psych wards about a decade ago in Los Angeles County. The patients had cotton gowns, they could display artwork on their walls, and they had privacy when using the bathroom.
Then I thought about the night I spent in jail over a decade ago. They stripped me of all my socks and shoes, but I could wear my clothes, the walls were bare, and there was no privacy to use the bathroom in the cell. I even recall there was this guy across the hall from me in another cell and he would watch me urinate when I had to use the toilet, and it was humiliating.
When I left my job working as a case manager in the hospitals, I decided to write an expose of inpatient psych wards in Los Angeles County that discussed the conditions in acute wards, which didn’t paint the best picture of their conditions and treatment of the mentally ill. The wards were dark with no windows for light, which is similar to jail conditions. However, patients could display their artwork on their walls that they did in recreational therapy, which I thought was uplifting. Although they had communal bathrooms, the stalls had doors for privacy.
Then, when my book got published, I was cruelly reprimanded by the County. They stripped me of my job at the hospital, and proceeded to discipline and punish me by sticking me in the basement of headquarters. I was stuck in a cube with stacks upon stacks of policy and procedure binders that I was told I had to read. There were no windows, I had little contact with fellow coworkers, and was isolated and deflated. It felt like being back in a holding cell in jail.
After six months of misery, I went out on medical leave for depression, and the book more or less ruined my life for the following five years. People would often ask me if it was worth writing the expose, and for a long time I stood by my work, however, looking back, I’m not sure if it was worth it. If conditions in psychiatric wards haven’t changed, but have only gotten worse where are we headed? On top of that, sadly we still live in a culture and society that silences whistleblowers, and prefers not to know what goes on behind a locked facility.
When I read this article it infuriated me, and disappointed me as well. What is it going to take for things to change? Well we can start by embracing those that try to move the needle. We can champion whistleblowers and not use scare tactics to silence them by sticking them in a job equivalent to being in jail. A job that only resulted in a deep episode of depression, a lost of wages, and a sense of hopelessness for the treatment of the mentally ill now, and in the future.
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