I Visited a Psychiatric Ward and Here’s What I Learned

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psychiatric ward

What do you think of when you hear about a psychiatric ward? Dr. Seward’s madman house? The facility from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Or maybe the grim asylum where Hannibal Lecter lived? Of course, the reality is fundamentally different from what we see in the movies – for better or for worse. In case you were curious about how an actual psychiatric ward looks like, here is my experience of visiting one. 

So, how did I get there? The university had a contract with the hospital that allowed us, psychology students, to visit the ward under the supervision of the clinical psychologist in charge. Our task was to observe the setting and get acquainted with the institution’s environment. I paired with a friend and agreed to go together on a Friday morning.  

A Strong First Impression

‘Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December’ when we arrived at our destination situated in the rural area. My thoughts immediately went to The Overlook, the terrifying hotel from the acclaimed Stephen King novel The Shining because the main building loomed menacingly over us. I dismissed the idea and entered the property. 

As the gatekeeper registered our data, a patient approached us, asking for money. I almost said the joke about the students’ empty pockets, but I decided to simply said I didn’t have any. The man looked disappointedly at us for a moment, then went away. I started to get nervous at this point, but then the clinical psychologist came and welcomed us in.   

What is the role of the clinical psychologist in a psychiatric ward?

The clinician’s office was at the end of a very narrow, dark wooden staircase – a detail I will never forget. Fortunately, the rooms upstairs were bright, newly furnished, and warm. As we started talking about the facility, I began to calm down and actually partake in the conversation.

So, the clinician assesses the patient’s mental state via interviews or clinical tests if the situation allows it. Depending on the results, the clinician, together with the psychiatrist and the rest of the medical staff, intervene to delay the decline of the patient’s mental functions. The treatment usually includes both medication and long-term therapy.

In that specific psychiatric ward we visited, there were a hundred and fifty patients at that moment, most of them suffering from schizophrenia. This particular ailment affects the person’s discernment and can manifest as incoherent or illogical thoughts, impulsive behaviors, and hallucinations. And yes, some of the patients had displayed violent conduct in the past, thus leading to their commitment.

How does a psychiatric ward look like?

By the time we went out in the courtyard again, the sun had begun to shine and everything looked a little less intimidating than before. We entered the main building, which housed the kitchen, the dining halls, and the living quarters. Meanwhile, the clinician described the daily program while we went from room to room, which helped me to better understand this micro-universe. 

Some of the patients were getting ready for lunch, while others were resting in their beds. A few of them were watching TV, and others were just walking down the halls in a world of their own. I felt bad about intruding into their lives, but I focused on the educational purpose of the visit and that eased my conscience a bit. I tried to act as respectful as possible, greeting everyone I met. Sometimes I got an answer, sometimes not. 

I remember a man followed us for a while in silence. He had a blanc expression, which unsettled me. I didn’t know if I should say something, so I just let him be. Fortunately, a nurse called him back to his room and we went to another building.

There, a group of patients was attending an occupational therapy session. Its aim is to develop both social and life skills, like participating in a conversation, and motor coordination. They were crafting holiday cards while listening to carols, anticipating the Christmas festivity in a joyful atmosphere. They showed us their beautiful paintings and quilling creations they had made during earlier sessions. Not all of them wanted to participate in the activities, but the therapist talked to them nevertheless, engaging them in whatever way she could. 

Mixed Feelings

Let me put it this way: when I arrived at the psychiatric ward, I could not wait to get out. But after spending around five hours there, I was glad I had the chance to do so for a number of reasons.

  • The discussion with the clinical psychologist enlightened me from a professional point of view. I wish psychology students had access to those types of experiences because no textbook prepares you for hearing real-life stories and trying to interact with somebody who has a mental illness.
  • I had finally met the people I wanted to help in the future. It was difficult, it was emotionally draining, but it was worth it. 
  • I once again noticed the authorities’ disinterest regarding mental illnesses. The facility was understaffed and under-funded, hence the low efficiency of the treatments. 
  • I couldn’t help but feel heartbroken for the patients who were going to spend the rest of their lives in the psychiatric ward. It was better than being alone on the streets, of course, yet they should have had more alternatives. The rehabilitation programs for schizophrenia patients are limited and so are their chances of improving their social functionality and regaining their independence. 

From what I know, there haven’t been any Coronavirus in that psychiatric ward, which brings me a bit of comfort. I still think about the morning I spent there from time to time, wishing I could have done something more than just visiting.


I hope you found my story informative and thought-provoking. If you are interested in mental disorders, you might want to read this article about depression.

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