I'm Addicted to Psychiatric Hospitals

It's all well and good tending to people while they're institutionalized, but if they're not armed with ways to deal more easily with the outside world once the meds run out, what chance do they ever have of integrating back into society?

The UK's mental health institutions came under fire this weekend, when the British Psychological Society (BPS) launched an attack on those engaged in the rival profession of psychiatry. The BPS argue that it's wrong to treat mental illnesses as a biological problem that can be fixed by doctors with tons of drugs. They say it's time for a "paradigm shift" in the way mental health patients are treated and that diagnoses like autism and schizophrenia are neither valid nor useful. We should, the BPS argued, be looking more at how social and psychological factors contribute to mental illness.

A supporting argument for that arrives when you look into the problem of discharging psychiatric patients back into public life. It's all well and good tending to people while they're institutionalized, but if they're not armed with ways to deal more easily with the outside world once the meds run out, what chance do they ever have of integrating back into society? An unfortunate side effect of that problem is that patients become dependent on being in care, as they know that it's the only place where their problems will be effectively addressed and dealt with.

My friend Alice is one of those people, and has described her dependency as an addiction to psychiatric hospitals. Which struck me as odd at first, but when you imagine being in the outside world as something that spurs on depression and suicidal thoughts, I suppose it makes sense. Alice was eight years old when she was first admitted to a psychiatric ward. She stayed there for seven months after being incorrectly diagnosed with autism and has been in and out since. I spoke to her about her about her addiction.

Alice with one of her paintings.

VICE: Hey Alice. Why were you admitted to a psychiatric ward when you were only eight years old?
Alice: I had bad anger issues as a child, and instead of social services realizing it was because I was being physically abused, I was sent to a psychiatric ward and told I had autism. I was at boarding school for six years after coming out of hospital, then I was in care. Mental hospitals feel like my second home and I’m still struggling with mental illness now.

How did the doctors eventually realize that you're not autistic?
When I was 15, social services did an investigation with the police into my home life. The police were coming round my house frequently because I’d call them after someone close to me had been really violent towards me, but someone close to them would call them back saying I'd lied.

Did you ask for help?
I called helplines all the time. I’d call Childline and the NSPCC and I always felt frantic because I was scared of my environment. After the investigation, they realized that my behavioral problems were due to my home life and not autism. Autism is a lifelong condition—I wasn’t showing the symptoms any more and it’s not something you can "grow out" of.

Do you feel let down by the system?
Yeah, I do. I’m worried that this will never end, or that the only way it will end is if I’m dead. I was on the waiting list for therapy for a year and a half before I went into hospital. At 17, I was living on my own with no family support and struggling to cope. I spoke to my head of sixth form and told her I was suicidal and depressed. Nothing happened and I waited for my appointment for a year and a half before I went back into hospital. It was a relief. If I had a referral and help earlier on, I wouldn’t have had to go back into hospital. I ended up dropping out of school and it’s now been four years and I’m still waiting for the therapy.

A selection of Alice's paintings.

Wow. Were you monitored while you were staying on the ward?
Yeah, but people snuck in weed, scales, pills, alcohol—all of that. I was around people who were a danger to themselves and others, but these things weren't monitored. If we were feeling unsafe and had pills or razors, it was our responsibility to tell staff. It doesn’t make much sense if you don’t have a clear mind and want to hurt yourself. Why would you ask for help if you were in that state?

Was there anyone you felt particularly scared of?
There was a guy with a foot fetish who begged me to show him my feet. I said "Good morning" once and he grabbed my boob and started screaming that I was a bitch, but the two nurses on duty continued their conversation. The girls are put in quite vulnerable positions, so I would try to stay in my room and just paint.

Have you heard of people lying so they could stay in longer?
Yeah, obviously. I was one of them. We were all definitely still sick, but they wanted to discharge us earlier than we should have been so it looked like treatment in that particular ward was effective. We’d be running around scared that we’d be released to no family, friends, or support. At one point, being released was my worst fear.

Have you met anyone else who's addicted to mental hospitals?
I wouldn’t say this lady was addicted on purpose; she was ill and she couldn’t survive outside of them. Her name was Cotton, she was about 70 and had bipolar. She’d been in and out of mental hospitals since she was 18. There was another guy on our ward who was around her age, and they'd met in hospital around the time she first went in. So the cycle of coming back to hospital has obviously been going on for a while. 

Cotton ended up getting engaged to this guy. It’s hard to meet people outside of psychiatric wards, I suppose. They must have felt like soul mates always bumping in to each other. About 40 years ago, they snuck off and got caught having sex. That’s about the most exciting it gets in there.

Are people always scared of leaving?
Yeah. There were loads of young patients, around 16 years old, and they refused to change. They wanted to stay because outside isn’t nice for people like us. Also, they thought if they stopped cutting and being self-destructive, people would stop caring and forget about them, but we’re already forgotten.

Did you feel like that?
To an extent. I had the worst relationship with my mom, but we were closest when I was most ill. She was incredibly caring and loving towards me—more than she’d ever been. I suppose I thought that the more ill I got, the more she would care.

When was the last time you were in hospital?
Two days ago. It wasn’t a psychiatric ward, it was because I was on a drip for two days because I took 32 paracetamol. Then I was discharged.

Why do you think mental hospitals are so addictive?
When you’re inside, you feel the safest you’ve ever been. You become so dependent on other people instead of them helping you make decisions for yourself, so I now don’t know how I’d survive on the outside world. You're away from reality, completely absorbed in another world. I loved it, and the thought of leaving frightened me. When all the help and support is taken away, it can be really scary. You don't want to get out while you're in there, which I suppose explains why they're so addictive.

Follow Mica on Twitter: @MicaSpeaks

More stuff about mental illness:

Inside the Loony Disco

Manic Depression

Photographing the Sweet Crazies of Addis Ababa