Going to a mental hospital isn’t a failure, but a courageous step toward feeling better and creating a life worth living.

by Renée Fabian

My anxiety spiked as I stepped through the sliding glass doors of the mental hospital, duffle bag in hand. As I said I wanted to check in, the bored-looking receptionist waved me to the seating area and made a phone call. Was I really doing this? Did I even need to be here?

Before I had a chance to chicken out, a lovely admissions coordinator showed up and went over the paperwork stating my rights as an inpatient at the hospital, making sure I understood I couldn’t just leave when I wanted. It was all so cordial, like I wasn’t signing away large parts of my freedom, no matter how temporary. Then I was walked back to “the ward,” weaving through a tangle of hallways and patient artwork, administrative offices and the sounds coming from behind locked doors.

When we stepped onto my unit, panic took over. What had been an abstract idea — checking myself into a mental hospital — was now real. My bag was stashed behind the glass of the nurses’ station and I was left standing awkwardly until, paperwork in hand, a nurse took me into an interview room where she asked all the same questions as the admissions coordinator: Are you feeling suicidal? Do you have plans? When’s the last time you self-injured? She asked me to lift my shirt and drop my pants, checking for wounds, scars and contraband. When this was over and they snapped my hospital bracelet to my arm, I was set loose (sans the drawstrings in my favorite hoodie) to the common room with the other patients. While intimidating at first, these people turned out to be not just friendly, but some of the strongest, most honest people I have ever met and learned from. My anxiety may have been through the roof upon checking in, but I knew I needed to be there.

After struggling with persistent suicidal thoughts and self-injury, at my therapist’s urging, I voluntarily checked into an inpatient mental health hospital. While hospitals have a terrible stigma — and sometimes rightfully so — I had a great experience, largely because I chose to take charge of my mental health. The hospital program I attended included group and individual therapy geared toward trauma survivors. I had a chance to reset my mental health in a safe space with other patients struggling in similar ways, often while writing in my journal and watching “Family Feud” in the evenings.

Related: How to Stay Alive When Everything Hurts

Going to the hospital wasn’t an easy decision. The first time I attempted to go, I got so scared, I checked myself in and then right back out the same night. I returned a few days later and stayed for a week. By voluntarily checking in, I had more control over which hospital program I chose and more say in my treatment and discharge date. The hospital staff was able to regulate my medication faster than an outpatient psychiatrist, I was able to resist self-injury because I was in a safe environment and I learned new coping skills for when my symptoms become difficult to manage in the outside world.

If you’re struggling with your mental health and weighing whether or not to voluntarily check into the hospital, here are three reasons to help you make the decision.

1. You’re feeling seriously suicidal.

It might be hard to recognize you’re seriously suicidal when you’re in that mindset. Before I went to the hospital, I could have checked off the list of most suicide warning signs: isolating from friends and family, feeling completely hopeless and depressed, suicidal gestures, getting my affairs and accounts in order and having a definite plan and means in place.

But it was only after the fact I realized how far down the path toward suicide I had traveled before going to the hospital. If you’re feeling suicidal, even thinking about it, reach out for help — whether it’s to a therapist, friend, family member or suicide hotline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255.

Even when it feels like you’re alone and nobody cares, there are people out there who very much want you to live. Others will be more objective about the seriousness of your symptoms and can help you find a hospital program, if needed, that will be a good fit for your situation. You don’t have to make the decision alone, and reaching out for help when you want nothing more than to quit life is one of the most courageous choices you can ever make.

2. People close to you are suggesting you might need more help.

My therapist started recommending I check into the hospital about a month before I finally made the decision to go. She was concerned about my level of self-injury, my inability to deal with difficult emotions and my high level of anxiety. I was beginning to not only talk about feeling suicidal, but admitting that I had plans and was making arrangements for when I was gone.

If people close to you, especially a trusted therapist, friend or family member, are suggesting you might need more help than outpatient treatment, that’s a good sign it might be time to consider the hospital. Not to mention, medication can be adjusted quickly so you can feel better faster. In the hospital, my only concern was focusing on my health — thanks to the isolated and protected nature of the ward — and it was a relief to let go of my adult responsibilities for a short period and just focus on feeling better.

3. You’re Googling whether or not you should go to the hospital.

If you have to ask, there’s probably a good case to be made for checking into the hospital. It may sound silly, but I Googled “reasons to go to the mental hospital.” Though I have struggled with suicidal ideation on and off for years, this time had felt different, but I didn’t know if it was serious enough to warrant checking into the hospital. After all, going to the hospital is a big decision.

My Google search affirmed what I already knew intuitively and had been told by my therapist, but coming to the realization that even I was feeling the need to get more help tipped my decision in favor of inpatient treatment. In the end, I made the call for myself — and that was empowering. Going to the hospital isn’t a failure, but a courageous step toward feeling better and creating a life worth living.

Though my mom jokes with me now that I have to go to the hospital if “the crazies are coming out,” in all seriousness, if you’re suicidal or experiencing extreme mental health symptoms like I was, consider checking yourself into the hospital. Ask someone you trust to help research hospital programs — find referrals or a hospital with a good reputation in the mental health community — and call their admissions staff. Ask as many questions as you want, including discharge policies, what services and programs they offer patients, what their phone and visitor policies are and what else to expect if you check in. Own your brave conviction to go.

Going to the hospital was a huge, scary decision for me. But the safety of the restricted ward, the relief of not having to pretend I was OK when I wasn’t, the therapy and skills groups I participated in and the amazing nursing staff made it worth it. The hospital really can help. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I have made for myself.

Renée Fabian is a Los Angeles-based journalist who covers mental health, music and, of course, cats. Her work has been published with Wear Your Voice, The Establishment, Ravishly, The Daily Dot, and The Week, among others.

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