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Warmth scarce in the last resort

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2002

Late last year I had the occasion to enter the psychiatric ward of a Tampa hospital.

I was not a patient, but for years I have been fascinated by psychiatric hospitals, as have so many of us. Witness the success of such books as Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, made into a movie with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. There have been lots of others.

From them I kind of got the feeling these are places of last resort, yes, and miserable, yes, but interesting in many ways.

I can't say that for this one.

Of course these books were written about places accustomed to treating patients long-term, and the stories were filtered through the sensibilities of fine writers.

Here, I was just passing through, a wait of only an hour or so, lucky me. But in so doing I came away with the very strong feeling that I wanted to stay out of such places, if I could.

In this setup, at Memorial Hospital, there was a large windowless room: TV, plastic (or some other wipeable fabric) covered couch and chairs around the TV, behind them institutional tables and chairs. At the front of the room was a glass-enclosed space where the staff could watch the patients. The patients' rooms were along halls on either side; at the end of each hall was a pay phone, the only phones for patients to make or receive calls.

The TV was set on a news show. There was not much else to do but watch. Well, there were a few books on the shelves and some board games. No magazines, nothing interesting like art on the walls or tactile, like a real fabric.

I was wondering, should people in crisis watch the news? Should I watch the news? It's not generally very life-affirming, and these were worse times than usual, but it was local news with a feature on buying furniture for your nursery. The person interviewed -- an employee of a baby furniture store -- told us you should buy a new crib, so you're assured of having all the latest safety features. I thought back to my daughter's hand-me-down crib and how she, and the boy baby it was handed down from, have survived to ages 27 and 30. I thought this so-called news was really more depressing than war.

Then dinner was announced, and patients came out from their rooms. Dinners were brought in Styrofoam cartons with plastic utensils and handed to each patient, who chose where to sit at the various tables, which were bare. They had to eat right out of the cartons. Some of the patients ate alone in silence, but others were animated and talked over dinner the way co-workers do every day at lunch. I admired their spirit.

I also admired the spirit of the people working here.

During the day, there are sessions with psychiatrists and, I noted on the bulletin board, art therapy and journaling sessions. I learned, too, that patients were taken outside to a pleasant, almost picnicky, area to smoke. (It must be very hard to have to cut down on smoking at a time like this.)

As a stopgap measure, places like this are crucial and necessary. The real tragedy is the people on the outside who never get in, and the people who cannot get appropriate mental health care after they're out. Mental health has never been taken seriously in this country. As astonishing as it seems, most insurance simply doesn't pay for it.

So maybe this is all we can expect from a psych ward. I've been told it isn't very different elsewhere.

But I craved some warmth -- fresh flowers, a colorful painting, food arranged attractively on a plate, I don't know, classical music -- some of the things that make life worth living, something to remind me there are reasons to get well.

- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.

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