What Is a Psychiatric Hospital?

How to Know When This Is the Best Option

Group therapy is often part of treatment in a psychiatric hospital.

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Psychiatric hospitals specialize in treating mental illness. Most psychiatric hospitals provide nursing care, medication management, therapy, and social work services. Some hospitals treat special populations only, such as children, people with eating disorders, or people with substance addictions, while other hospitals accept anyone who is experiencing a mental health crisis.

Reasons to Stay in a Psychiatric Hospital

There are many reasons an individual may go to a psychiatric hospital. Basically, any time an individual’s symptoms are becoming a safety issue or too difficult to manage in the community, psychiatric hospitalization may be warranted.

A hospitalization often occurs when an individual’s mental health deteriorates to a crisis level. However, hospital admission criteria vary greatly and depend on many factors, such as an individual’s insurance, history of mental illness, and family support.

There are many examples of times when someone may go to a psychiatric hospital. For instance, a person with depression is experiencing thoughts of suicide and may not be able to keep herself safe. A hospital admission could monitor her safety while helping to get her depression under control.

Another example would be an individual with schizophrenia who has been experiencing increased delusions and hallucinations, despite taking his medication as prescribed. He gets admitted to a psychiatric hospital so his medication can be adjusted while under the care of nurses and psychiatrists.

Maybe a person struggling with anxiety calls a crisis hotline after not being able to sleep for several days. The crisis hotline recommends the person go to the emergency room to seek help and the individual is then transferred to a psychiatric hospital to get some immediate relief from anxiety.

Perhaps a child is displaying severe behavioral issues, is acting out in school, kicking and screaming, and threatening his siblings with a knife. His parents may admit him to a psychiatric hospital so that a diagnosis and treatment plan can be devised while stabilizing him and keeping him and others safe.

Long-Term Hospitalization

Most psychiatric hospitalizations are short-term stays. An individual who is admitted for treatment may only remain inpatient for a couple of days to a couple of weeks and may be discharged once their medication is adjusted or as their mental health crisis resolves.

In some cases, long-term hospitalizations are necessary. Individuals who pose an ongoing threat to themselves or others, for example, may remain in an inpatient psychiatric facility indefinitely. This is sometimes the case when individuals are convicted of serious crimes but aren’t considered competent enough to stand trial or to endure a prison sentence.

In decades past, individuals in the United States with mental illness were often sent to “asylums” where they remained for years—or perhaps their entire lives. Starting in the 1960s, there was a major push for deinstitutionalization, which meant psychiatric hospitals were required to discharge patients to less restrictive environments whenever possible.

Currently, in the United States, most individuals with a chronic mental illness who require long-term care do not remain in the hospital.

Instead, they may live in a group home type environment, a residential setting where staff can assist them, or in another setting with outpatient support.

Involuntarily Commitment

Family members cannot force a competent individual to be hospitalized against her will unless there is a court order; in some states, however, a person can be committed if she has been determined not to be competent to make her own health decisions.

Simply being worried about a person’s well-being isn’t enough to admit them to a hospital if the individual isn't interested in treatment. Instead, there usually has to be some sort of legal process that orders a person to be temporarily hospitalized.

Involuntary commitment is a legal process where individuals who are unable to remain safe may be placed in a hospital against his/her will. Each country and state has their own rules about when an individual can be ordered to be hospitalized.

Usually, involuntary commitments can only occur when an individual is a danger to themselves or someone else. An actively suicidal or homicidal person may be ordered to be hospitalized to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Confinement is usually restricted to a few days, often 72 hours. After 72 hours, an individual may need to be re-assessed again to determine if the court should continue to order confinement.

Hospital Treatments

A psychiatric hospital allows an individual to rest in a way that he wasn't able to at home. A hospitalization may also provide a higher level of supervision and medical support that family members aren’t able to offer.

A stay in the hospital can reduce someone’s stress level by releasing them from daily responsibilities such as working, cooking, and cleaning.

In some cases, a hospital stay will allow someone to focus on getting healthy and a few days of inpatient treatment may be enough to resolve their mental health crisis.

Psychiatric hospitals may offer both physical and mental health treatment. An individual who is undergoing medication changes, for example, may be monitored closely by a physician. Or, an individual withdrawing from substances may require ongoing nursing support.

Hospitals usually provide a variety of treatments. A psychiatrist (a physician who specializes in mental health medications) is usually available to assess an individual’s medications and make any changes that may be needed.

Therapists often offer both individual treatment and group therapy. Psychologists may be available to conduct psychological testing or to assist with a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Family involvement is usually encouraged. Family members can often meet with medical and mental health professionals to learn more about the person’s diagnosis and treatment. Family is often involved in discharge planning as well so that they can be aware of how to help the individual stay healthy after being discharged from the hospital.

What to Expect

If you or a loved one is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, you may be anxious about what the admission will be like. Each hospital is different and your stay will largely depend on the type of hospital you’re in.

Some are state-owned facilities, others are simply separate floors or units in medical and surgical hospitals, and others are private psychiatric hospitals.

Rules and Regulations

Depending on where you are admitted, you may be subjected to rules or regulations that seem quite restrictive. In situations where hospital staff is concerned about suicide risks, for example, you may be asked to remove all of your shoelaces and belts and all of your belongings may be searched or even removed from you.

There will likely be rules surrounding visitation hours with family and phone privileges. There may also be locked doors that don’t allow you to wander the hallways or leave the unit.

While some hospitals allow patients to leave the grounds for a certain number of hours, other hospitals do not allow anyone to leave until they’re discharged. There may also be rules about bedtimes and entertainment. Music, television, and internet access may be restricted. They may provide puzzles, games, and a supervised outdoor space.

The hospital may not allow you to keep your cellphone with you. They may also not allow outside food and they may not allow you to smoke cigarettes.

The hospital will provide almost everything you’ll need for your stay, including toiletries, linens, and blankets. You may be allowed to bring your own clothes and some books to read.

After-Care Plan

A psychiatric admission isn’t meant to cure a mental illness. Instead, it’s about stabilizing an individual until they’re well enough to be discharged. An after-care plan is crucial to ongoing wellness. It’s important to work closely with the hospital staff to ensure you have a clear strategy for managing your symptoms after discharge.

The hospital staff may set you up with a psychiatrist to manage your medication after you’re discharged. You may only be sent home with a small amount of medication so it may be crucial to see a psychiatrist who can monitor your medication and continue prescribing.

Be sure to ask about any side effects you should be on the lookout for and inquire about any activities that you may need to avoid while you’re taking medication.

If you’re going to need therapy after you’re discharged, the hospital staff will often arrange for your first appointment. They may also ensure that you have everything in place that will allow you to continue treatment, such as transportation and insurance coverage.

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