Illustration by Shamma AlMansoori.

Putting Humanity at the Center of Psychiatric Wards

Internment at a psychiatric ward can be a harrowing experience with nothing to show for it. Patients must be treated with care and dignity for their mental illness to actually improve.

Nov 13, 2021

TW: This piece includes descriptions of mental health disorders and mistreatment at mental health facilities.
Cut off from the outside world. Stripped of all your belongings. Put on 24/7 surveillance.
This might sound like a scene from the latest horror movie or a maximum security prison, but I’m actually recounting my time at a psychiatric ward. Earlier this year, I was admitted for 10 days after suffering a manic episode.
I didn’t really know what internment in a mental health facility entailed as I had never been to one before, but I was expecting some form of care and therapy. But the only treatment I received was angry nurses shouting at me to take pills. The rest of the time I was left to my own devices. Yet the worst part was not the lack of concern. It was the lack of human dignity. Hidden behind an overbearing glass pane, the nurses looked at us as if we were ticking time bombs, incapable of any rationality and liable to explode any minute. There was also no way of escaping the security cameras, not even while showering.
The modern approach to dealing with people with mental illnesses is driven primarily by fear. It asserts that they are psychologically abnormal threats to society and therefore need to be subdued and restrained. One thing I noticed during my time in the ward was a ubiquitous state of deprivation. They wouldn’t even give me warm water: I had to drink from the tap myself. For fear that we would hurt ourselves or others, hoodie strings and plastic forks were among the list of banned items. The long list of “cannot” and “not allowed” may have immobilized patients and prevented them from causing harm, but it also further estranged them from normalcy and enlarged the gap between them and “the sane.”
In those 10 days, I was constantly reminded that I was subhuman, that I was a dangerous freak and deserved to be locked up. This degrading and mortifying experience did little to help my condition. I would sob during my mom’s daily thirty-minute visits and beg for her to take me out, and it wasn’t until I left the ward that I truly started to feel better.
When a child makes a mistake and all they are met with is judgement and reprimand, they’re more prone to think negatively of themselves and spiral into self-loathing. Instead if they are gently corrected and given encouragement to improve, they’d be more eager to do better next time. The same goes for psychiatric patients. It doesn’t feel heartening to be constantly reminded that there’s something wrong with you and that you’re different from everyone else. Rehabilitation requires a little empathy and affirmation that they are still loved and cared for and most importantly, still human.
In his treatise Madness and Civilization, French philosopher Michel Foucault argues that insane people in the Renaissance were viewed as possessing wisdom outside the limits of traditional understandings of reason and it is only in relatively modern times that they began to be seen as undesirables that need to be institutionalized and cured. This view is a refreshing take on what it means to be mentally divergent and something that modern psychiatry can take a page from.
This isn’t to say that there is no merit to psychiatric treatment. Nowadays, medication can be effective in alleviating and curing certain disorders, but the conversation must not stop there. The physician at the facility that I was at trusted me with prescriptions and nothing else. He was impatient and crude, often not willing to listen for more than a minute or two. I attribute my worsening condition in this facility to me not getting the validation and compassion I needed. At the end of the day, a person’s health and healing is holistic. It needs to consist of multiple forms of therapy such as counseling, not just medication.
The psychotherapist that I started seeing recently pointed out that some patients prefer relying solely on medication to treat their problems as they view pills as a one step solution – you take a tablet every night and that’s all — you don’t need to worry about your condition anymore. Yet oftentimes, psychiatric medications may only mitigate the physical symptoms and do nothing to resolve the core problem. These mental health issues could be caused by childhood trauma or repressed memories that require digging through layers of complex thoughts, something only achievable by therapy and proper care. While the physiological benefits of medication definitely exist, they need to be used in tandem with psychotherapy to ensure that patients receive healing instead of merely suppressing their conditions.
Sometimes what patients need isn’t a world class doctor but one that treats them with human dignity. This is especially true for patients in psychiatric wards who have always been told that they are abnormal and undeserving of equal respect. Many of them are driven off the edge not because they want to, but because nobody seeks to understand them. Only by acknowledging the humanity in them can they truly begin their rehabilitative journey.
Charlie Fong is Senior News Editor. Email her at
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