Mental Health Matters: “She Was Admitted to a Psychiatric Hospital. What Happened Next…”

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Mental Health Matters

Mark Reeves, Ph.D.

December, 2017

“She Was Admitted to a Psychiatric Hospital. What Happened Next…”

What is it actually like to be psychiatrically hospitalized or seek mental health help?  How can we who meet people who are seeking or are brought for mental health help against their will respond?

As a psychologist, I have heard many stories of how grateful and appreciative clients are who have received mental health help. Even small conversations have made big differences in their lives.

But, I have also heard stories of people who were traumatized in the process of being forced into help or even when seeking help at treatment centers across the country. They spoke of feeling “dehumanized,” having their belongings temporarily taken, and hearing that locked door close. They described what it was like to suddenly be an, “other.” They described panic when hearing another client acting out. Can you imagine trying to sleep in a place where you felt so helpless?

A famous study was conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971, The Stanford Prison Experiment (yes, you should Google it). A highly-rated movie was released about the study in 2015. In the experiment, people were told to act as either guards or prisoners in a fake prison. Over time, the “guards” became very abusive to the “prisoners” who became very passive. The study was stopped after only six days because the abuse got so intense.

Mental health agencies are not prisons, but helpers must be careful not to slip into an unhelpful role, or start to see clients as “others.” The best way to avoid this is to imagine putting yourself in the role of the client. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, “prisoners” were actually “arrested” in their homes and “booked” into jail by police to give them the full experience and help them get into their role.

If you were a nurse in a burn unit, would you not be very careful not to touch the patients, or to do so very carefully? People seeking mental health help sometimes are like burn victims, but in ways that are invisible. These “burns” could be from abuse, grief, drug or alcohol abuse, hearing voices or seeing things others do not see, or truly believing others are trying to hurt them. Just like a burn unit nurse, we can be emotionally delicate with our customers.

Most importantly, I have learned that “customer service” is the best therapy. I spent years in classes and in training to earn my Ph.D. But, I believe that the most important lesson I heard about helping another human being is to humbly show that person respect. Look your consumers in the eye. Call them by name. Treat them how you would want to be treated at the darkest moment in your life.

Be the “light” to that person.

Each person we serve is a human being worthy of respect, even if that person does not seem to be especially worthy of respect at a particular moment.

Isn’t this the spirit of all of the holidays this time of year? If you have room for growth, make it a New Year’s resolution to bring even more humble customer service to all people you encounter in the mental health field. Not only will this help those that you serve directly, but will lead those people to encourage others who are not sure they can trust helpers to seek help.


What a gift!

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