On the Inside

What's it like in a mental health facility?

Strange, in a word.

The ward is like an uncomfortable union of a hospital and a budget motel. When I went for my initial screen to see if I needed to be admitted to the AMHU (Acute Mental Health Unit), the Mental Health Nurse said it was lovely and she would be OK with her family staying there.

Maybe it was me, but I wouldn't send my family there. This is based solely on my experience with the bathroom.

There were no taps. To turn a tap on, I had to wave my hand in front of a little black screen embedded in a white light-switch plate on the wall behind the tap. The same for the shower. There were no little bits that could be taken off and used for cutting yourself.

The shower head was a sort of rounded pyramid shape that protruded off the wall about 4cm. It was about as high as my collar bone. This is an important detail, by the way. Then there was the bench, which for some reason unbeknownst to me, was placed on the wall in the shower - half way in the fall of the water.

Showering was a pain. The bathroom had no windows, so it had no sun and was cold from the air conditioning. All the time! There was nowhere to put your clean clothes or towel. So I lashed out and took two towels from the linen trolley each evening - one for the floor as a bathmat and clean, dry space to put my clothes and the other to dry myself. As I stood in the fall of the water, my leg touched the bench. When I washed my hair, I had to lean back onto the wall and crouch down about 10cm to get the water to run over my hair!

The bed wasn't a hospital bed. It was a mattress on an built-in solid unit with no edges or bits on it. There was a little safe in the cupboard in which they put the items they confiscate during the bag search upon admission. The room was for one person only. Some other rooms had two beds in them. I was SO thankful to be on my own!

The windows were double-glass with blinds on the inside of the panes. They weren't adjustable. So until 10pm and 'lights out', light from the hallway leaked in through the slats. Breakfast was served at 7:30am, lunch at 12midday and dinner at 5pm. I could tell it was time for a meal when the crowd gathered in the dining room (near my room) and the tell-tale rattle of the trolley arriving would echo up the hallway. One day, a patient was walking around the dining room laughing and calling out, "C'mon.......feed me! Feed me!" She was OK (probably about the most 'normally' behaved patient out of all of us!) and just being funny.

I'm not going to talk about hospital food. It was hospital food.

The only conversations that could be heard were between staff or staff and a patient. On my first afternoon in AMHU, I was very low. After my bag search and being run through the rules, the nurses left and I was alone. I got into bed, pulled the covers up as high as they would go and cried. This was what my life had become.

A while later, I was startled when a nurse opened my door, peered in and then closed it again. I saw them through the blinds write on a clipboard and then move on. That happened every 30 minutes during my time at AMHU when I was in my room. 24 hours a day, even while I was sleeping! Every single patient is checked on every half an hour. It felt strange. Like I was a child. I felt like sitting up in bed and yelling, "I'm NOT going to kill myself, OK?"

For the first few nights I could not sleep. The first night I had food poisoning or a vomiting bug, so I definitely didn't want to sleep then. And if I wasn't totally suicidal on my admission to the AMHU, sitting there on the toilet at 2:30am vomiting my guts up and swaying sickly and almost passing out did it. There was a lot of noise through my bedroom wall. Every so often there'd be a door opening and shuffling and water running. It was on my second last night that I realised what was on the other side of my bedroom wall. The nurses staff room and toilet. The noises I heard all night long were the staff peeing! Great stuff! I was overjoyed to find this out......

There was a whiteboard in the dining room and the patients' names were listed on it, along with two columns labelled 'AM Nurse' and 'PM Nurse'. Patients are assigned a nurse every shift. Their job is to help you do whatever you need to do: medications, washing, information, etc. They also did one of the best things I have ever experienced in any QHealth facility before. They would come and talk to you. They'd ask the questions no one else would. Why are you in here? What's been going on? They were like pastoral psychologists. They were amazing. I learned more from them than my psychologist in the AMHU (I should point out that the psychologists need to screen you for more serious mental health conditions which takes time, so they don't have heaps of time to get the whole background. It's expected that the nurses will chat to patients to find out their story).

I grew rather attached to my daily nurse! Three of them in particular were wonderful for different reasons. Leanne told me that she had a very similar story to me and I felt normal (ish!) then. Aaron told me about the pain-body and that gave me a tool to use in moving forward from being hurt, frustrated and upset. Di listened to my story then told me that I was strong when I needed to be at important parts of my life, eg. getting married at 21 years old. That felt empowering!

There was a 'Pill Room' with an opening through which you lined up to take your daily pills. They put them in a little paper cup and gave you a cup of water to take them with. When you'd done the deed, they signed it off. They'd also take your blood pressure and temperature each morning, too.

The patients ranged from people like me - life had just knocked them flat. We talked and looked people in the eye, after getting over the initial shock of being In Hospital. Then there were the patients who shuffled and had minimal eye contact. Their speech was barely intelligible or random. One patient sometimes asked the staff (in his gruff way) to spell words out for him so he could write them down. Another chuckled to himself every few minutes, all day long. He said things like, "God bless America." and other completely random things. He didn't speak to anyone directly.

When I was admitted, the nurses said to me many times, "If anyone's bothering you, just let us know." That scared me. I have a personal space bubble that I only feel comfortable letting certain people in. I was terrified that someone would grab me or push me or shout in my face. I didn't know what to expect.

But not one person did any of those things. I spoke a few words to some patients. One patient sat across the table from me at my first meal in the AMHU. He considered me for a moment, tears on my cheeks and a downcast face, then said in this beautiful soft voice,

"Are you new here?" I looked up and didn't give my typical smile.
He was wearing a hoodie with a cap on and his eyes peered out from the shadow over his face.
"I'm Martin."
"I'm Julie."
"It's nice to meet you." I met his eyes again.
"Thanks." I mumbled, starting to cry again.

Another patient on my last morning offered me a mintie with a few mumbled words. One night her nurse helped her cook scrambled eggs in the staff kitchen. She muttered to her nurse while the nurse joked with her and about her.

I had a chilling experience on one of my last days in the AMHU. There was a section that was sealed off for those with extreme cases of mental illness. There was a man in there whom we could hear at various times of the day or night yelling out unintelligible words. He'd shout out a few times, then go quiet for a bit. One afternoon, he went on for a while and then from the same section, but obviously a different room came a grumpy exclamation:

"Shut u-uh-up!"

There was a pause.

More shouting.


Then the nurse (speaking to the grumpy man who'd had enough of the shouting):

"Be quiet! He can't help it!"

It might have been funny if I was a normal person, but being through what I had gone through, I found it really sad. They wheeled him out on my last day in the AMHU and my heart broke for him. A tiny, frail man in a wheelchair. He was bundled up in a beanie and a jumper and a blanket on his legs. His face was vacant. Not in a "I don't know where I am" sort of way, but as if he didn't know he was a man. As the staff made final arrangements, he let out another unintelligible bellow. They wheeled him away to some locked-up room in another hospital. There was no-one except nurses and doctors to help him. I wondered about his family.

We patients had access to colouring in and so I took the opportunity to do some. We could do craft if we wanted. There was also a morning walk that we could do after breakfast around hospital grounds and to the local shops. Patients signed up for the activities on the large white board where the TV was in the common room. There were groups that I could join, like 'Faith and Friendship'. I went to a group called Mindfulness which was wonderful. I lost 80% of the tension in my rock-hard shoulders in 15 minutes of mindfulness. It was brilliant.

There was a vegetable patch in the outdoor section which provided for some of the salad that was served. A nurse came and picked some while I was out there reading one day.

I wrote letters. I read books on depression and healing childhood trauma. I wrote anything that came to mind. I summarised what I'd learned in my reading. I read information relevant to my role on our school education board. I sat. I listened. I watched. I thought hard.

The nurses had a section that patients couldn't access and half of it was windows. If you needed something, you could knock at the door and then wait for a nurse to see you. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life, having to knock and wait at the door like a nervous schoolgirl!

The psychologists would see patients once a day for a session. In the first three days, I could not stop shaking while the psychologist and I talked. It was strange having a nurse in the room as well, just listening. My psychologist was fantastic. He spoke in the most amazingly calm and thoughtful way. Every word he said was measured and exact. I was almost hypnotised by his manner. But I still shook while we talked.

There were three rooms up the hallway that were used for visitors with children and the sessions with the psychologists. One of them had toys, which our children loved of course! I would sit up the end of the hallway looking at pamphlets for support groups for those with mental illness and wait for the moment my family would appear around the corner, then jump up and walk towards them excitedly for cuddles and catch-up. It was a relief to realise that I did miss them dreadfully. Towards my last couple of days, I almost began to loathe them coming because it meant they had to go again.

My initial prognosis was at least two weeks in the AMHU. By day three, I was horrified at the thought of being in there more than a week. It was cold, I missed my family, the bathroom was a logistical nightmare and the food was hospital food! I was admitted on a Thursday and was discharged officially on Tuesday morning after spending the previous night at home.

And just like that - after five days - I was home again and full of hope.

That's what it's like in a mental health unit. Tough. Cold. Strange. Interesting. Retrospect. Suspense. Healing. Positive, thanks to the wonderful staff at the AMHU.


  1. wow. thanks for that insight Jules

  2. You are more amazing than you realise Julie! God will turn this test into your testimony. Still praying for you xxx


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