What it’s Like Being a Medical Student Patient on the Psychiatric Ward

What it’s Like Being a Medical Student Patient on the Psychiatric Ward

It is now approaching exactly a year since my admission to a psychiatric inpatient ward. On one of my first few blog posts, I wrote about my story of being admit and what that journey was like. It was perhaps the worst that I’ve ever felt in my life. The feeling wasn’t just sadness – it was utter despair. Hopelessness. Confusion. Anger. A mixture of several emotions which I simply cannot describe in words.

In hindsight, I can see that I very much needed that admission. It did aid my recovery, although I feel it’s fair to say that things got a little worse before they got better. Not because of the admission – simply because of how poor my mental health was. I also learnt things about being a patient that no course at medical school could have taught me, and I hope that these lessons will aid me in my future practise as a doctor.

Being on the ward was anything but easy, however, as I have already alluded to in the first paragraph. The thing that really got to me was the lack of freedom I had on the ward. Of course, I now understand that this was all for my safety but it was difficult. Nor did medical school magically pause while I was away – I was missing plenty of lectures, and my exams were literally just over a week away.

Here is what it was all like.

Lonely – initially at least

Due to how sudden and unexpected my admission was, I didn’t have a change of clothes on me. I was therefore forced to wear my medical school hoodie as that was the only top I had. Many of the patients around my saw the hoodie, and were unsure if I myself were a patient or if I was actually also some medical professional. We were always told by our medical school that the general public will see as us doctors even though we’re still years away from qualifying, and this was really hit home through my time at the ward.

Unfortunately, there were a number of patients who felt mistrusting of me. Some had the impression that I was there to somehow spy on them, or else secretly treat them. It was difficult to blame the other patients, for their mental health was impaired. At the same time, I felt very much as an outsider from the medical students at my medical school. I almost felt as though I ‘betrayed’ them by being in a hospital as a patient for such a stigmatised illness, and this made me feel further lonely. I felt as though I were in a state of limbo of not being accepted. Most of my time was spent sitting outside on a bench, just staring into the horizon.

This changed as my stay progressed, however, with patients gradually becoming more trusting of me. My fellow medical students too, on my discharge, were very much on my side.

Feelings of guilt about missing work

“Maybe it’s best for you to put your revision on hold, and concentrate on your recovery,” is what the psychiatrist at the hospital told me.

He was, of course, completely right. It was far easier said than done though. My exams were coming up, I was missing lectures and my attendance was falling. didn’t want to get kicked out of medical school. I had worked very hard to get there, and I didn’t want to throw it away just like that. The only thing that I felt I could deal with at that time was my exams.

And so I decided to stay up late at night in my room on the ward, just working. Many healthcare assistants, nurses and psychiatrists suggested that I stop working and get myself some rest. None of them were wrong, and it was something that I very much needed. I felt like I couldn’t do that, however, and so I chose to ignore them and continue working despite being in so much despair.

There is literally no escaping from this course. I was later offered the opportunity to postpone my exams by my medical school, although I wasn’t aware of this at the time.

Feeling out of place

Although I was a pre-clinical student at the time of my admission, I had begun to start some (very limited) clinical work. I had a patient who I was making home visits to from time to time, had a few GP placements and a bit of time in the outpatients of a hospital. To transition from this to being a patient felt very…odd to say the least.

Many people – including staff – looked at my medical school hoodie and assumed that I was on some sort of placement. To them, it was also odd to have a medical student so out of place. This made me feel even more out of place, and it became a vicious cycle like that. From learning what constitutes good patient care, I was now at the receiving end of it all.

All those lectures we had on things like ECGs, mental health and pharmacology were suddenly being applied on me. It was difficult to feel like a ‘normal’ patient. All I was doing was analysing my whole patient journey. ┬áIt allowed little time for rest, as I constantly felt as though I were in some work environment.

Losing something we all take for granted – freedom

It sounds very stupid now, but I almost self discharged myself on the basis of…salt and vinegar crisps. Yep, you read that right.

On my first night, I was feeling rather peckish and wanted those crisps. Had I been back in my halls at the time, I could have just popped out to the local Sainsbury’s, grabbed a packet (as well as lots of other junk food) and returned. Easy.

It wasn’t so easy while being admit, however. When I asked if I could leave to go for a walk to the shop, the staff told me that I wasn’t allowed to at the time. Of course, this was done for my safety and I completely understand why they said that. It did highlight, however, how restricted I felt my life had suddenly become. We all take for granted our levels of freedom and independence we have. It’s only when we lose it do we realise how important it is.

Lots of support from the staff

The stay wasn’t all bad.

The vast majority of staff, both clinical and non-clinical, were absolutely fantastic. It really made me proud to see that this was the profession that I was training to be part of, whether it’s psychiatry or otherwise. Several of the nurses and healthcare assistants treated me with great respect while I was there. They all eventually helped make me feel as though I belonged, explaining to me that I wasn’t the only medical student or doctor they had treated.

All of them kept me going. In fact, on my discharge, the psychiatrist wrote the following on my letter of absence to my medical school:

“In spite of how depressed he has been in recent months I was impressed by his resolve to continue with the medical course. I hope very much he is successful in doing so.”

That gave me the confidence I very much needed.

Final thoughts

My stay in the psychiatric unit was one of the lowest points in my whole life. It did teach me a lot, however, and stuff that I could never have learnt at medical school. The good thing about learning about all these negatives is that it can, I hope, help me address these with any potential patients in the future. Only time will tell how realistic this hope is.


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