How to Think About Going to the Hospital for Mental Health

Jordan Brown

I have a family member who's really struggling right now with her mental illness.

She's dealing with major psychosis and mania.

She's not herself, and it tears me up inside.

She's in a hospital.

It's one of several stays she's had over the years.

It's tempting to think that anyone who's in a hospital for mental health issues is broken.

But we'd never say that about physical health issues.

I should know.

I've been on both sides.

I took myself to the hospital years ago when dealing with depression, and I worked in an inpatient unit with people living with all kinds of mental health issues.

Here's what you need to know about why people are scared of hospitals--and how we could change the way we think about the people who go to them to treat mental health issues.

Mental Hospitals - Where the Fear Comes From

It's important to remember that a person goes to--or is taken to--a hospital when they are not in their right mind.

For me, I feared for my life.

I had a plan to kill myself.

For other people, it could be psychosis or mania that leads to a hospital stay, like my family member is dealing with now.

What's key is that there is a break.

From reality.  

From connection.

From the typical meaning that holds it all together.

Going to the hospital for mental illness is not failure.

So why does society see it that way?

I think there are a number of reasons for this.

One, we're scared of what we don't understand, and diseases like bipolar and schizophrenia top the list.

It's easier to say, "Ok, go away over there where I can't see you," than, "What's going on here? What must this person currently believe to be acting this way?"

One of the best questions I ask myself is:

"What would need to be true for this person to act the way he acts and believe in the things he believes?"

This is a question that can apply to all kinds of situations, not just ones related to mental health.

A second big reason society doesn't like talking about mental health and hospitals is because, deep down, we all know that we could end up that way.

Mental illness and mental health fall on a spectrum.

If you go back to the what-would-need-to-be-true question, couldn't there be scenarios that cause you to break from reality? That make you question everything you knew and go down a different path?

This is going to be a bit risky to say, but mental health and mental illness are, in many ways, social constructions. They're a bit made-up.

Of course, we have diagnoses to help doctors and other clinicians identify illnesses, but there were completely bogus diagnoses in these diagnostic books mere decades ago.

There were diagnoses that targeted certain groups of people as ill just because we didn't understand enough about their lifestyle.

How wrong is that?

If doctors can make the mistake to mislabel and mistreat based on lack of knowledge and fear, what hope is there for the rest of us?

A lot, actually.

We All Go to the Mental Hospital

We all go to the hospital from time to time, whether it's a physical one, a mental one, or a social one.

We all break down and need to repair, and there's no shame in acknowledging that.

Athletes can quit.

People can reverse course and change careers.

And doctors can change their minds about diagnoses they thought they understood.

The idea of the hospital as a bad place for people we don't understand is one that has been constructed over hundreds of years.

If we took the time to understand symptoms like mania and psychosis, or depression and anxiety, we would come to know them better.

We would begin to see that these symptoms are in all of us as humans.

It's part of the wide range of human experience.

So the next time you learn about a person or celebrity or whoever going to the hospital for a mental health concern, ask yourself questions:

  1. Why?
  2. What's going on here?
  3. What would need to be true for this to happen?
  4. What will happen next?
  5. How could I learn more about this?
  6. What feeling is this bringing up in me right now--and why?

If you were in the same position, would you rather have someone ask questions about what's going on for you?

Or would you rather have them make assumptions about your life?

Let's choose the path that leads to more understanding, not less.