What Is It Like On A Mental Health Ward?

A pretty broad question…fortunately despite my best attempts it’s one I can answer!  I was a patient five times in and out of psychiatric hospitals 2002 – 2006 and I returned as a peer support worker locally for a year more recently.  I know it well.

My first impression in 2002 was it had corridors like a doctor’s surgery or an old folks home. The reception, soothing artwork, a TV room/lounge with timber framed chairs and vinyl padding which could be wiped clean easily, a dining room, a conservatory, a smoking room and single rooms. Dormitories are very rare.  Pretty bland stuff, but they vary. Some wards even back then were beautifully designed! Thornford Park Hospital near Newbury where I stayed for a month, on Chievely Ward, had a large central space/lounge with our bedrooms opening directly onto it instead of using corridors.

Most of the people on the type of ward I was on were sectioned, here against their will and could only leave the ward if they were accompanied by staff at arranged times. Most mental health wards are occupied by voluntary patients who could leave the ward freely.     

Is it difficult?

It can be but really it depends.  My first hospitalisation was so hard for me that two weeks later I’d escaped and jumped off a bridge, then I spent three months stationary in the general hospital with a broken back.  So when I worked on the same ward in 2019 I was very sensitive and understanding of the plight of the patients. I got how horrible it can be.  But 80% of the time it was peaceful on the ward, playing card games, chess, bingo, table tennis…doing some art, watching TV, playing guitar, chatting about normal things such as sports and life with other patients and staff.

15% of the time you could tell some of the patients were struggling a bit and you’d offer to talk it out, maybe I could helpfully share some of my own experiences about there being a light at the end of the tunnel and that things change. Often for the better. 

“Pete I’m as bored as a plank.  And I need a refill for my e-cigarette.”  Said Paul. Parklands Hospital is officially a smoke free NHS facility. I sympathised.

  “I can go off the ward and get you a refill, no problem.  What flavour?”


  Sarah, a qualified mental health nurse staff member hears us.

“Paul, lets have a game of tennis” she says.

  Paul sees an opportunity – “wow, is there a tennis court now Sarah?”

“No I mean – you know what I mean.  Very funny Paul.”

And the mood feels lightened a bit from interaction and one on one conversation with staff.  I have met many people who put so much value in having staff to actually listen and talk to instead of them just policing the place, as happens on some wards. The staff at Parklands Hospital in Basingstoke when I was working there were excellent at this, they mingled with patients on this ward, the PICU (Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit) and were often helpful with knowledge of mental health, as well as having to do the other parts of the job like looking after the safety of people on the ward.  Because 5% of the time there would be some sort of argument, incident, a problem that needed to be contained and dealt with.  The staff are all trained with that stuff.

A patient having an outburst is completely understandable.  The ward is locked and one can see why nobody wants to be there. 

Not bad this one…

Work is beginning soon to create a brand new ward at Parklands Hospital, but the PICU is a bit small and dull in my opinion.  Being on new medications with common side effects, dealing with internal and external grievances with one’s situation and whatever else might be troubling a patient is made harder when sometimes it feels like you are stewing in your own juices, which is exactly what happened to me. The staff would try for that not to happen, but resources, funds, numbers of available staff, were limited.  There was a small gym next door to the ward but only trained gym staff could supervise and take the patients to the gym, but numbers were lacking and there were so many other priorities that took precedence.  I asked to be trained so I could assist but there were so many other things to think about, hoops to jump through, other obligations that I never got the chance.  A real shame, having a workout would have been a brilliant way to relieve stress and feel better I’m sure.

The day was quite well structured around mealtimes and a few activities, I used to do bingo games. I’d talk to the big five supermarkets for bingo prize donations and the were very generous, patients and staff joined in, it bought people together, encouraged the less social types to interact with life on the ward and we all liked winning!

Some patients spent their time socialising, making use of the things that might help pass the time.  Get a cup of tea.  Read the paper.  Play chess.  Watch TV.  Order a take away. 

Though it’s rarer, others like myself in 2002, couldn’t see past the joylessness of their internal problems and spent the whole time curled up in ball.

Sometimes a patient might look the part.  Some medications induce restlessness as a side effect, making us feel like rocking back and forth in a chair.  I used to get ‘hyper salivation’.  Another common side effect is the stiffening of facial and mouth muscles, where you can’t really control your tongue and ergo saliva begins to leak.   

The security aspects of a locked ward are treated with importance but silently, like an invisible bodyguard protecting his employer.  The goal is for wards to feel as homely as possible.

But these wards are not scary, you won’t get lobotomised and abandoned in some dark place these days, and you may make new friends and begin to feel better about things.  But the money is short, and this leads to less staff and an environment that I found claustrophobic at times, as a patient it’s easy to see the negativity, even if it’s not pervasive.  Einstein once said “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”  If you are well enough it can be an opportunity to laze about a bit, collect your thoughts, take a break from life and relax, so if you are not that bad, by which I mean not consumed by your own despair, it’s not so bad.  But if you are not doing well it can be tough and these are the types that would really benefit from more staff, nicer facilities, more activities and more money.

Now if you like art and would like an uplift, click menu in top right and check out my art gallery.     

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