This blog post contains sensitive topics that may be difficult for some people to discuss. Reader discretion is advised.

One of the reasons people who are depressed don’t ask for help is the fear of the unknown. What will happen if I say I’m thinking of suicide? Will I be locked up? Will the hospital staff treat me like a prisoner? Will it be like in the movies?

The short answer is very simple: It’s not like what you see in the movies. I speak from personal experience. Yes, that’s right, I wondered about all of these questions and more the morning I knew I needed help for my mental health. I hope sharing my experience will help people know they’re not alone and encourage them to reach out for help! Asking for help is an incredibly brave and hard thing to do, but it doesn’t have to be scary.

I drove myself to the emergency room that morning and walked up to the security guard. I could barely speak, but I finally got the words out: “I need help. I tried to kill myself last night.” Then I burst into tears.

From that very first exchange, I was treated with incredible empathy and received quality care. No one made me feel I was wasting anyone’s time. No one implied I was “faking” or seeking attention. From nurses to security guards, to doctors to social workers – everyone treated me kindly but firmly with a commitment to ensure I was safe and not a danger to myself or anyone else.

When you go to the emergency room for help, you will get it. You will be monitored and watched. Your belongings, clothing and cell phone will be removed from your room to a secure location. You will be given a hospital gown to wear. If you cooperate with your medical care, you will not be restrained or locked away. You will be free to move around your room and use the bathroom. You may have water or food, depending on the situation. Your blood and urine will be tested for controlled substances, and you likely will be given medications to help keep you calm.

You will meet with a social worker who will make a recommendation for your treatment. If you don’t agree to the recommendation made by the medical team, you may be committed to a secure behavioral health unit on an involuntary basis. The medical team is committed to keeping you safe, even if that means you must be hospitalized.

In my case, I voluntarily sought treatment and I followed the advice of the social worker who recommended I be hospitalized for a 3- to 5-day stay. But I was scared about what a stay in a behavioral health unit would be like. I had never experienced anything like that before.

What I found was very similar to the hospital. The staff is firm about following the rules to keep everyone safe, but they are all very, very kind and helpful. Food is served at specific times throughout the day. Water is always available and usually some small snacks too.

All of your activity will be documented at least five times every hour – including when you sleep. You are encouraged to shower once a day, maintain your personal hygiene and keep your room tidy. Some places allow you to wear your own clothing, but when I stayed during COVID, all the patients wore the same color scrubs and anti-skid slippers. I was able to keep my ballet-style shoes because they didn’t have a hard sole.

You will meet regularly with a psychiatrist, a physician and social workers to plan the best treatment to stabilize your mental health. The staff will help you with group therapy, outdoor exercise if the weather is nice, and other activities. Your vitals are monitored regularly, and medications dispensed according to the treatment plan you develop with your team. If someone in the unit is belligerent or violent, he or she may be confined to a safe room, but only if necessary.

I spent a lot of time reading paperbacks, playing solitaire and doing yoga stretches when I could go outside. I felt safe and I greatly appreciated the staff who helped me understand what was happening.

For some people, that’s a very short stay. For others, it’s longer. Most hospitalizations are designed only to get the patient out of immediate danger, while ongoing treatment will continue indefinitely. In fact, you will not be discharged until a complete care plan and several appointments have been set up for you.

Recognizing when your mental health is putting you in danger is not an easy thing to do. Fear of the unknown can make it even harder to ask for help. Not everyone will have the same experience, but you are more likely to find excellent care and well-trained medical professionals if you do ask for help.

The 2021 Community Health Needs Assessment shared that 42% of Muskegon County and 39% of Oceana County older adult survey respondents reported feeling lonely directly due to the pandemic.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat

About the Author

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Colleen Gehoski Steinman, APR, is the Advancement Specialist for AgeWell Services.

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