72 hours: A Confrontation with Mental Health and America's Healthcare System
Updated: Jun 3
By Sophia Small.
As I sober up from my drunken stupor, a wave of panic washes through my body as I realize I’m being handcuffed to the hospital bed. How did I end up here? Long story, but I’ll try to give you a summary.
Starting at a very young age, I knew there was something off. In lower school, I’d revel in envy watching my peers running around energetically, the classrooms echoing with hyperactivity, as I mostly enjoyed arts and crafts, an activity that allowed me to stay safely in my shell of silence and solitude. As I grew older, the differences between my peers and me started to become more and more apparent. I was caught in a permanent state of exhaustion, low energy, and low morale. When I switched to a new school for middle school, this change, mixed with my social anxiety, led to a disastrous beginning. Not only did speaking to people result in a depletion of my energy, but it also terrified the living shit out me for extremely irrational reasons. So, I kept to myself, which when you have a resting bitch face, doesn’t really sit well with others. Long story short, middle schoolers are pesky little monsters, and I experienced constant and relentless bullying which further pushed me towards isolation. Not only was school a shit show, but my home life wasn’t an ideal situation either. Without going into details, let’s just say I had no place where I was able to achieve the happiness I was looking for. This led to my decision to leave the negativity and go to boarding school.
Boarding school was a fresh start, the new beginning I craved. I believed that my depression was only there because of the negative environments I was in before and that escaping them would inherently lead to me escape my depression. Boy was I wrong. You can’t surpass adversity unless you confront it. So, I went to normal counseling. The ability to unload my life on someone was relieving but just not enough for me.
Everyone experiences different levels and symptoms when depressed, but I’ll try to give you an idea of what mine look like. What I experience in my depression are two different levels. For the sake of this article, let’s call the levels Becky and Sally.
Becky is that mosquito that just won’t f*** off. She’s like a permanent gray cloud, with my efforts to escape her and find a ray of sunshine resulting in a constant state of exhaustion. Although she sometimes allows a little sun to shine through, her imminence overshadows this short felt joy.
Sally, on the other hand, is a colossal bitch who even makes Becky look like an angel. Sally stays dormant most of the time, but when she decides to wake up, she unleashes a storm. Sally’s goal is to paralyze me, to break me down mentally and physically until I lose my sense of purpose. She doesn’t let me leave bed, eat, or talk to people, and leaves me with nothing to enjoy, ultimately telling me I should end my life.
This voice, the one telling me to end my life, has oftentimes made me hate myself. I am so fortunate. I have family and friends that love me, I have a roof over my head, and I go to a top institution. I feel like I’m such a spoiled brat for feeling this way. This, the fear of burdening others, and the fear of being defined by my depression, leads me to internalize my feelings as much as possible and hide behind a mask.
Anyways, back to the story of how I ended up here. Having a Sally-ridden week, I turned to substances to escape myself, which obviously is a big no-no. Out of character for myself, I went on a week-long bender. Putting a depressant in my body every day naturally pushed me to my breaking point. I broke down, said suicidal things to those closest to me, and in the end was taken to a hospital by my roommates so that I could talk to someone. And so, we continue…
“We have no room for you in the psychiatric ward here,” says the UCLA doctor, “We have to transfer you.”
They then take me to an ambulance, where the EMT condescendingly tells me about this one time he felt sad, read an article about being happy, and felt better, the moral of the story being, “just be happy.” Please, for the love of God, never say this to a depressed person.
We then arrive at the hospital, which is in one of LA’s more impoverished neighborhoods, as the better psychiatric wards were full. Little did I know I was about to enter feeling monumentally better than I would upon my exit.
The psych ward was analogous to a prison. Leaving me there with no explanation of what was to happen, I was led to my room which looked like a cell. Being a small young female, I quickly realized I stood out like a sore thumb. I was the youngest by at least 10 years, and definitely in a different headspace than the others there. Let me remind you, those in psychiatric wards are not only there if they’re a harm to themselves, but also harm to others. The people there lived very different lives from me, most were homeless and picked up from the streets and were clearly battling some severe drug addiction, which was very heart-rending to watch.
I was sad, lost, and afraid. I would ask the nurses when I could talk to the doctor, to which they’d respond coldly that they didn’t know and that he comes when he comes, and then they would turn their backs to me, treating me like I committed some crime. They continuously drugged me, even though I didn’t need it, leaving me numb. I had nobody to talk to, and since they take away all your belongings, nothing to do. I stared at a blank wall and felt time stand still, slowly losing my mind. There was also a man, probably in his 50s and with teardrop tattoos on his face, who would stare at me, follow me, and constantly ask me for my number so that we could go out on the outside. The nurses were useless as they’d turn a blind eye, leaving me in fear and scared to fall asleep. I had to constantly stop myself from crying or having a panic attack, as expressing any sort of unsettling emotions would be enough for them to keep me there longer.
In one of the only conversations I had, I spoke to a man who was homeless. He said, “I’d rather be sleeping on the cold hard streets again than be in this prison.” This stuck with me.
After many conversations with the doctor, where I would assure him that I wasn’t a harm to myself, to which he’d respond that I could be lying and refuse to allow me to leave, he finally let me go on the basis that my parents had flown in and that I had them to turn to. For many there, that would never be the case. 72 hours later, I was free… sort of.
Although I was free physically, my mental state was anything but that. The physical isolation and the constant numbness I experienced from them shoving sedatives down my throat led me to experience some trauma. My anxiety skyrocketed, I didn’t know how to talk or interact with people, was constantly on the verge of tears, and had nightmares about my experience there for weeks after leaving.
What struck me the most are the conversations I had after with others who had been to psych wards and how their experiences were the polar opposite. The difference, evidently, seemed to always center around where our hospitals were located. I just happened to be put in an underfunded hospital in a poor neighborhood, which I’m actually glad happened as it really opened my eyes.
I’ve always known the US is a capitalist-driven society that prioritizes those with power. Power is money, and if you don’t have money, you’re left in the dust. As the suicide rate skyrockets, it’s disgraceful that our health care system is the way it is. Firstly, it’s not news to anyone that the U.S. doesn’t have universal healthcare, which is an issue in itself. Second, mental health treatment is basically considered a luxury, as only 2.4% of the U.S.’s total health care spending goes towards mental health treatment, while over half of our population seeks mental health services. Not only this but insurance plans are inadequate, as insurance companies consistently reimburse behavioral health providers at lower rates. Additionally, 40% of Americans have to wait longer than a week to get mental health treatment, as many are faced with limited options, which in dire situations, could be fatal. The disparities and holes in our mental health care system are obnoxiously evident and real, even though a huge majority of the population believe that mental health is just as important as physical health.
This is something that needs to change. I’m lucky enough to have a good insurance plan, where I can see the best therapists, go to the best in-patient programs, and receive top-notch treatment, but this is far from the reality that others face. I don’t think I would be alive right now if I didn’t have the help that I’ve received.
Although there’s sometimes that voice that tells me to end it all, my years of treatment have allowed me to grasp onto the voice that wants to live and sees the beauty in life. I still struggle at times, but I’ve been taught the skills on how to cope with this disease and feel better.
Nobody should be at their lowest point in life and then placed in an environment that treats you like a criminal. I don’t know how anyone would leave a place like that and feel any less suicidal. Our country needs to have a long and serious look at the embarrassment that our healthcare system is and fix it. I’m hoping that in writing this article, I can not only bring awareness to this issue but also destigmatize mental health illness. Putting this out there, when it’s something I’ve tried to hide from people at all costs, absolutely terrifies me. I’ve always hid my illness due to my fear of being a burden or being seen in a different light, but I’ve realized that there’s nothing to be ashamed of and that this doesn’t define me, it’s just a part of my story and journey. My hope is that in writing this, it will allow those who are struggling to feel more comfortable speaking out and seeking help. Although my hospitalization wasn’t a great experience, I was then able to seek more intensive types of treatment which allowed me to slowly start to feel alive again.
Depression is a chemical imbalance. It’s not your fault and you are not alone. Please remember, it’s okay not to be okay.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255