Al had to spend Mother’s Day Weekend in a mental health ward because he was attempting to get medication and showed up at the wrong place at the wrong time. This is his story that he wrote up only two days after leaving. Use this account as a reason to look into your own mental health and now the emergency health services in your area:

On Friday May 6th, 2015, I woke up feeling anxious like there was something wrong, something missing. I had been feeling this way for a couple of weeks, but I had not been able to explain away the feeling. Two weeks prior, my family friend (who I had grown up calling Uncle Jim) had passed away and I was feeling sad. I had got to talk to him on the phone while he was still talking and I got to see him right before he passed. He was not somebody I visited a whole lot as an adult and he had been sick for a while so I didn’t think it would affect me so acutely, but it did. He was an important role model (he was a great teacher and I had followed a teaching career path because I like him so much) and him not being in the world affected me. After he passed, I was pretty OK but picked up the flu from a student (I am a tutor) a couple days after seeing my uncle. This combo of general sadness from the loss with the weakness, weight loss, fatigue, and sleeplessness from the flu combined to make some symptoms that my body recognized as anxiety. (I was divorced in 2010 and lost my job two weeks later and had the same symptoms. During that time I was plagued by panic and anxiety and had to seek emergency services.) So I felt like impending doom was coming and I was losing control of my thoughts. I thought it would go away with the flu, but it didn’t and I was in a bad way and needed help. At the time, I only knew of my local hospital (not a private clinic because those are highly cost prohibitive for me) and I had insurance through the county for services there. I knew from experience that I could get help, but they might hold me until I could see a psychiatrist.

I went to the hospital at about 10pm on Friday and went straight to the EPS (it was really difficult to find, by the way) and waited for a couple of hours to be seen. I cannot remember how many times I told myself I should go while waiting because it seemed that if it took this long to be processed, then it would take a long time to be seen. But I waited because I knew that I really did not have a choice any more. I needed the help. So I sat and waited next to a dramatic family that was trying to commit a son with mood disturbances. After hours of drama that really frayed my nerves, they left and I was seen almost immediately after. I was glad that that guy would not be admitted with me because I didn’t need that kind of anger around me when I could not leave. So I was processed on Saturday at 12am into the system. I was taken into what looked like a cafeteria with linoleum flooring and there were dozens of green couch beds with many people sleeping in them. There were a couple of tables that looked like the place to eat with some chairs around the outside. There was a police officer and what looked like cubicles to the left of entering where I assumed the doctors and nurses were. There was a police officer behind a desk next to the nurses area and there was a thick blue line on the floor that separated the patient area from the hospital staff area. I was processed in the nursing area (vitals, threat to others or myself, why was I there) where they took my shoes and my sweater and took stock of everything I had on me. I had brought my Ativan prescription because I have always been told to bring any prescriptions to the hospital. They took that as well, right when I needed it. At no point did I ever say that I wanted to harm myself or others, so I believe they took me in on a general admission instead of a 5150 (which means they hold me for 72 hours). I was wearing sweats and did not want scrubs so they took the string off of my pants as well. They then put me in the population with every person there. All the beds were full and there were discussions of separate back rooms for men, women, and minors. From what I gather, there was about 40 people in the facility, but it was really hard to tell because new people would come in and go straight to the dorms. While I was there, people were brought in on hospital gurneys from the actual ER, some were brought in handcuffs by the police, some were brought in by the police on their own, and some came from the same entrance that I came. This made me believe (and I later found out it was true) that this was the place that ALL mental health emergencies came in the middle of the night. I knew that it was a bad situation, so I decided that I was just going to put my head down and observe.

During the night, I discovered that most of the people in that room were just trying to deal with issues like mine and ended up in a situation. There were a lot of conversations like “I shouldn’t be here” and “I need to leave.” There was an immediate competition amongst the patients because you would not be able to leave without an OK from the psychiatrist. There did not seem to be a lot of psychiatrists around (I was told there was only one at one point on Saturday morning and then I was told there were three later in the evening) and the amount of people and paperwork meant that there had to be a reason to be seen. So everyone seemed to be interested in how to see the psychiatrist. I counted 2 people with MHW (mental health worker) on their badge, a couple of janitors, and 4 or 5 people that had RN (registered nurse) on their badge. There was also a stationed officer by the blue line (ironically), some admin that did not come through the patient area, and at least one psychiatrist that seemed to be invisible because they never came out unless there was a scuffle or they were calling somebody back.

Most of the patients just kept to themselves and tried to sleep through the experience until they were seen. One woman had a blanket on her head and looked surprisingly like Mother Theresa. She seemed harmless, but had a habit of tucking people in while they were sleeping. This turned out to be terrifying since you would wake up to a woman who you did not know only inches from your face and her hands near your neck. There was a man who kept refusing to have his vitals taken because he thought that it would reveal him as a monster. It turned out that he thought he was Medusa (or whatever that race of beings is). A couple of patients decided that the best way to get the attention of the psychiatrist was to either get in a fight with somebody or cause a commotion (desperate times). I will admit that it worked as far as getting attention, but it got the attention of all the staff and that person was immediately sent someplace else (i don’t know where but I imagined some kind of Shutter Island asylum) and they were not seen again. In hindsight, I assume they were isolated somewhere else but definitely held for the full 72 hours if not much more. I did not want to get out that way. It seemed to me that the best choice was to watch what the natural course of coming in and getting out was so I could try and find something that would quicken the process. On Saturday, a couple of men came in separately in cuffs that were put in the population, got in a fight, and then immediately were put in isolation and then taken away. I man who was hearing voices was brought in and he turned out to be interesting in that he had a fake leg but seemed to treat it like it was real on some occasions. For example, all shoes were taken away and we were given bright socks with grip on them. He put a sock on his fake leg and then proceeded to take off the whole leg, wrap it in a blanket, and then used it as a pillow (there were no pillows in case of smothering). A lot of patients requested their clothes back because they wanted to keep a sense of identity and there was hope it was cause to see the psychiatrist. This did not seem to work.

After hours of waiting and noticing that some people who came in after me were getting a chance to see the doc, I started to look desperately for what it was that I was doing wrong. It was 8pm on Saturday before I finally figured it out and I was starting to get a little stir crazy. I don’t remember exactly how much time I was awake or asleep, but I think I slept some because there are big chunks of time that I can’t recall now. All I remember is that I learned that the doctor had to have a personal consult if any kind of controlled substance was requested. So I asked for a sleep aid. It wasn’t the anti-anxiety pill that I really wanted, but I was afraid that that medication would lead to questions that would result in a longer stay. It worked. Eventually. The doc saw me at 1AM on Sunday morning and said that they were understaffed and having difficulty processing patients, but I would likely be out in the morning. I was eventually given a sleeping aid and something else (not sure what) at 4am. I was a little concerned about this because I knew I needed to be lucid for processing but I took it anyway. I asked for it and I wanted to be a good patient.

I was woken up a three times over the next 4 hours but I have no idea what time it was. I was woken so that they could take my vitals. I was woken up at breakfast because the guy next to me was trying to give me some French toast (he was very nice but did not have boundaries). And finally I was woken up at 8am to be assessed. This might have been the hardest thing I have ever done because I needed to be present and sane when I had only 4 hours of sleep and one heck of a sleeping pill actively clouding my mind. I had to actively hold back drool during the encounter. I was lucky that the psychiatrist could see through my haze and said I was OK to go home. I was outside at around 10am (I think) after a 36 hours stay. I had suffered greatly, but I now had numbers to call if I needed help, I had prescriptions for much needed medication, and I had an appointment with a healthcare worker and a psychiatrist. I had gotten all the help I needed and now had a place to go before there was an emergency.

I spent a lot of time thinking very poorly on the whole mental health system but soon came to the realization that there was a lot of help (I was able to find 20 health centers in San Jose alone with just a cursory google search) and even a mental health center at the hospital I was at. But nothing else was open at 10pm on a Friday. If I would have known this, planned for this (I have had issues in the past so I should plan), I could have easily avoided the situation. The US emergency mental health system is not set up to deal with masses of people at the same time so they just pile them in one place over the weekend. This can be avoided with proper planning.

Don’t think that this is something that won’t happen to you because it can happen to anyone. Some kind of mental health disorder lasting over a year has been reported by 1 in 5 adults in the US (NIH). Depression and Anxiety are a large part of this and are very treatable problems, yet they account for a large number of hospital visits every year. Some people think that they don’t have these issues because they are strong or manly or too smart. I am a 6’ 3”, bearded man who played manly sports like wrestling and soccer. I grew up in a house of men. I also hold 4 degrees including a masters in developmental psych. My toughness did not make me immune. I learned the hard way that I should have checked into the system before hand and I could have avoided my weekend at the psych ward. So, please, learn what your resources are and see somebody sooner than later if you need help. Be aware of your mental health and the mental health of your loved ones. Otherwise, you could get in a situation that will push your sanity more than any daily stressor ever could.