My experience of being a patient on a psychiatric ward
How the whole patient journey can influence recovery
After a year of attending lectures on pre-clinical medicine, I found myself on the wards for the first time. Except for me, things were different. I was there as a patient in a psychiatric ward.
I was approaching the end of my first year of medical school when I was admitted to hospital with a diagnosis of “severe depression with psychotic symptoms.” I was in shock. It had happened so quickly. One minute, I was at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. The next, I was ready to end everything while waiting for an ambulance to take me to hospital.
I was taken to a mental health unit where I was assessed and agreed to be a voluntary inpatient. No psychiatric beds were available on the ward, or in any other nearby hospitals, so I had to sleep on a small sofa overnight. By the morning they had found a bed, but it was located outside London. We often hear reports of a lack of funding for beds, and this experience brought home how frightening it is to be a patient without a stable place to receive treatment.
When I arrived at the hospital I was searched and some of my possessions, such as my phone and phone charger, were confiscated. Although I had not been sectioned and had voluntarily admitted myself, I had not been warned that my freedom would be so strictly curtailed and that I would not be allowed to leave the hospital. This made me think that I was being punished for being ill.
A nurse later apologised and explained that these measures were in place to protect my safety. As medical students, we often roll our eyes when discussing the importance of explaining things to patients and taking an empathetic approach, but having someone take the time to explain the situation made me feel more at ease.
To begin with, I found it difficult to fit in on the ward. Many patients found out that I was a medical student, and they were suspicious that I was there to treat or to spy on them rather than to be a patient myself.
As I began to speak to the other patients, however, I realised that they were just like me—human beings whose lives had been badly affected by an illness. They were not merely the embodiment of a condition, which is how medical students sometimes unintentionally regard patients. Some patients inspired me with their fighting spirit and their determination not to be beaten by their illnesses. I would go as far as to say that their example encouraged me and aided my recovery.
Although some staff communicated well with patients on the ward, others seemed demoralised. As a medical student, I could see that this was due to the underfunding and understaffing of mental health services. Psychiatry is also routinely undervalued and denigrated within the medical profession, affecting the morale of practitioners.
Doctors and medical students with mental health problems remain a taboo subject.  Although my experience was difficult, it gave me insight into being a patient—something that cannot be taught easily at medical school. As medical students we are often so focused on curing patients that we neglect to think about their “whole patient journey,” and how this affects their treatment and recovery. I hope that the lessons I have learnt will allow me to adapt my practice to become a better medical student, and eventually doctor, in the future.Usama Ali, second year medical student
Imperial College London, UK
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Usama Ali blogs as The Depressed Medical Student: http://thedepressedmedstudent.com/.
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