Beth A. Leverance
On a sunny August afternoon, I came home from work to find my 17-year-old son, Aaron, lying on the sofa moaning in pain. That evening we took him to the Emergency Center where a CT scan revealed that he had appendicitis. His appendix had to be removed. The surgery was scheduled right away and thankfully went without a hitch.
The next morning we went back to the hospital to visit her. Knowing which room he was in, we went through the door and took the elevator up to the floor where he was staying. No one stopped us at the entrance of the hospital and asked us who we were with. They never called the floor to get permission to go to his room, and they certainly didn’t ask us to lock up our personal belongings or go through a metal detector before continuing to visit. It seems absurd, doesn’t it, that you have to go through metal detectors to visit your loved one in the hospital?
When Aaron was 15, he became very ill with a severe case of schizophrenia. As a result, he spent much of his life going through various mental health facilities. Every time we visited the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, we were asked to stop at the front desk and tell them who we came to see. They called the ward where he was staying to get permission. After confirming, we were directed to lock our belongings. Finally, they took a metal rod and checked us back and forth for weapons. This process makes me shake my head in wonder. Was my son in the hospital or was he in jail?
The differences between many mental health facilities and hospitals don’t just stop in the lobby. Most hospital rooms are equipped with comfortable beds, televisions and walls painted in pleasant colors intended to calm and comfort the patient. Many of the mental health facilities where Aaron was treated looked like the walls hadn’t been painted in years. Rooms were often shared with one or more patients, and each patient had only a low platform bed. Patients were lucky to have one working TV in a common room with more than a few channels to choose from, let alone have a TV in their room.
I can understand the fierce nature of furniture and bedding can be intentional to protect people from personal harm. However, shouldn’t the intention also be to create a calm and comforting environment to help the patient heal? I rarely entered a calm and comforting environment when I walked the halls of a mental health facility.
Is it any wonder that many people with mental illness do not seek help for their disorders? According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of people with mental illness do not get help for their disorders because of stigma. Researchers have identified three types of stigma: public stigma, self-stigma, and institutional stigma. It is institutional stigma that creates significant differences in the environment and care people receive in mental health facilities versus physical hospitals. (Find the full study, “Stigma, Prejudice, and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness,” by Jeffrey Borenstein, MD, August 2020 at Psychiatry.org, www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/stigma-and-discrimination.)
Aaron is now 38 years old. I observed the institutional care he was receiving and saw only limited positive changes if any. Mental illness, however, is gaining more visibility due to the impact many have felt from COVID-19. This is unfortunate, but at the same time, I hope it is a blessing in the long run. The more people talk about mental illness and the more people understand it, the more likely positive change will finally be realized.
Institutional stigma can be reversed.
Beth A. Leverens is a mental health advocate for families who writes at https://raisinghealthyminds.com/