This is a journal which portraits my own experiences practicing in a mental institution. During this trip through insanity, I learned a lot about the disorders, the patients, the human being, myself, and life. My goal here is to share my feelings and knowledge about this subject based on my understanding, the aim being to break some myths about these kind of institutions, psychology and the patients that are treated here. With this, an empathetic feeling may be spread towards the lector, which leads to tolerance, fundamental in these cases.
First of all, I find the urge to state outright that essential information about the patients won’t be given here, as well as their real names, due to confidentiality. The name and exact location of the mental institution will remain untold, due to the same principle.
A Little Background
I’m a Psychology senior student in UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) Fun fact: the extension of the main campus is around 7km2, that’s bigger than Monaco! In Mexico City there are almost 21 million people and the mental illness prevalence is around 15–18%, depression being the most frequent disorder. So, as you can see, there is a lot of work to do in this field.
Some mental hospitals give students the opportunity to practice there, so they can have experience and learn in a real scenario, as well helping the patients through their treatment and giving something back to the hospitals.
The mental institute we are working in provides a diverse variety of services, like individual/group/familiar therapy, gerontology, addiction treatment, hospitalization due to crisis, along with others. The complex is divided in wards, each one corresponding to one floor (it’s a big place). The hospitalization segment is divided in two parts, one for the men and other for the women. Each one of them hosts around 25 to 30 adult patients, 18+ years old, which can stay from 2 weeks to several months, the former being the length of an average stay.
The first day my class arrived to the hospital we were assigned wards and teammates. The women’s hospitalization section, which I will refer as “Section 3,” was designated to me and two colleagues. At the beginning I didn’t know what to expect, since we were told that patients stayed in this ward after having a crisis, which can translate into them trying to harm themselves or somebody else.
We went upstairs until we reached the floor we need, where we found a hallway; on one side is the section for men and on the other is Section 3. A big steel door with thick glass windows which allowed only a blurry look at the inside separated my team from the ward. I rang the bell and a nurse rushed to the door, then we explained why we were there, showed our students IDs and a school letter. She let us in and as soon as I stepped inside the ward, the smell of a tasty stew surrounded me. That’s right; there was a kitchen just past the door cooking delicious food for the patients.
The first thing I saw broke my “movie mindset” about mental hospitals. There were a lot of patients all dressed in bright yellow clothes walking around the hallway and the dining room. There were no cages in sight, screams coming from the depths of the ward, no creepy laughs, and no one was wearing a straightjacket. As we made our way to meet the leading psychologist, I noticed there were a lot of nurses and doctors walking all over the place not bothering to even look at us. We were just another group of people wearing white coats. However, the patients did notice our presence immediately and knew we were new in the place. They started following us and asking questions like “Who are you?” and “Doctor, may I speak with you?” This was an unfamiliar situation to say the least, so I limited myself to greet and grin.
The leading psychologist was a very friendly woman which exhales professionalism, whom from this point on I will call Olivia. She explained to us what the labor is in section 3 and what our work is going to be about. First, we call the patients in for a meeting, in which they can talk about how they are feeling in the hospital and if they have any complaints about it and their treatment. While this was going on, I noticed a red writing in the wall. At first, inside my “movie mindset”, I expected to read something obscure, about death or satanism, but no. It reads: “Hello Kitty” with a little heart at the end.
I listened and observed carefully the patients during the first meeting. Most of them didn’t look like they had any illness or disorder, but the content of their speech told me something wasn´t right. After that, we met a patient who was a newcomer. My colleagues and I introduced ourselves and proceeded to present an interview from the one-way mirror of the Gesell dome. The patient evaded a lot of the questions made by the psychologist, answering irritably, and there were some signs of memory loss that became apparent as the interview advanced. Nevertheless she provided information about herself. At the end of the interview she asked for some paper and a pencil, then asked for our names to write them down in case there was an emergency, or if she needed to sue us. We told her our names one more time and then she asked for our full names individually. My colleagues told her their whole names, but when it was my turn I just said my surname; the patient got upset and asked me for my full name. I told her, “I have already told you my whole name three times, don’t you remember?” “NO, you haven´t!” she yelled in an angry tone, but after a long silence her expression changed to a worried one.
At that moment I understood something, and after reading her file it all became clear to me. This patient, as many others, acts in this angry or belligerent way because events in her life have broken her, leading to so much grief, sadness, and desperation. These patients are simply searching for a way to defend themselves against such a hostile environment.
I also asked myself:
How many of us “sane” people act the same way?