Baby Blues: As A Former Psych Ward Patient, I Don’t Condone Committing Women With Unwanted Pregnancies

psychiatric wardBaby Blues is a column about raising my daughter in the windstorm of postpartum depression. Though discussing the dark spots of postpartum depression, I also share my successes.

Yesterday, Koa Beck wrote about the proposed change in Irish abortion laws that could deny abortions to suicidal women, requiring them to “wait out” their pregnancies in the psych ward. As a woman who has both been admitted to a psychiatric ward and been pregnant (not at the same time, though), the horror of this nearly renders me speechless.

Pregnancy does bizarre things to your body and mind. My pregnancy, though a surprise, was very much desired. Still, there were days I felt like I was dying. All it took was one ignorant comment from a stranger or relative, “hey, looks like you need to lay off the combo meals!” to send me spiraling into a hormonal frenzy. There were many days where it felt like I was nothing but a sack of meat with a baby inside. Regardless of my career accomplishments or my latest sewing projects or landscape paintings, it seemed like all people wanted to talk about was my body. It was demoralizing on a good day.

But holy shit balls, to live through an unwanted pregnancy in a psych ward. If the psych wards in Ireland are anything like the one I had the, erhm, pleasure of attending here in the states, I am horrified for these women.

During my stay, I was just another number in their prison system. I know they have rules they must follow for the well being of the entire group—one phone call per person per day, no shoe strings or hoodie strings, only a tiny slice of outdoor time. I get that I was out of line when I begged, one day, to get a second phone call with my ex-boyfriend.

But there were so many moments when I felt like the employees’ attitudes toward me were completely unjustified. During a particularly teary panic attack, a rude supervisor sat in front of me pretending to listen but merely interjecting at all the wrong times saying crap like “just stop crying.” As I mentioned in another article, the doctor who initially admitted me to the hospital berated me for having scars on my wrists, saying I would never get a decent job or a husband with baggage like that.

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have gone to the psychiatric ward at all. A long conversation with my mom or another trusted person might have sufficed to “talk me down” the night I was eventually admitted. Even when I got to the facility, I had a sense that this wasn’t the place for me: the first person I saw was a schizophrenic man ranting in the corner about aliens or squirrels or alien squirrels. But once you’re there, they have rules about when you can leave and what you have to do before you’re deemed “no longer a danger to yourself.”

So I think of these women in Ireland, impregnated women who may have been raped or have no means to care for a child, women who are mentally ill but functional like me, and I imagine how bleak they would feel if confined to a psych ward for an entire nine months. I spent three days in such a facility, three days feeling like an animal who had to be controlled, who couldn’t be trusted to do simple shit like take a shower or eat a meal.

I departed with even more doubts about myself. I remember feeling grateful when I finally did leave, and I had a little more perspective (hey, the real world isn’t so bad compared to that). Maybe that was the facility’s mission for me, to make me realize I was a brat for being even vaguely suicidal.

But I can say with confidence that if I’d been confined to that shit hole for nine months capped with the grand finale of giving birth to a child I never wanted, I would come out a hell of a lot crazier than I was when I went in.

(photo: Alvaro German Vilela / Shutterstock)

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  • rebecca e.

    Amanda, my comment has nothing to do with THIS post. But I’ve been following this series of yours and I wanted to tell you how admirable I think you are. I suffered from PPD with my first pregnancy and it took 5 doctors to finally say, “Hey, you might have PPD.” You are doing a great service for women. I think back to my book “Knocked Up!” (and I’m not plugging my book) but I remember writing the sentence, “It’s not that I want to die, but if I didn’t wake up, that would have been okay.” Let’s just say, I can’t read my book, and will never read it, because it’s just too painful to remember that time. For my second pregnancy, I was very well prepared. PPD is awful and just knowing that you are sharing your story with other women will help them greatly. Kudos.

    • Amanda Low

      Thank you :-) It’s therapeutic for me to write about all of this, and I hope people continue to get something out of it, too. I can definitely relate to that feeling you mention, as well — it’s gotten much better since I started working again, but there were many days when I felt like that.

    • Valeri Jones

      You ARE plugging your book, Rebecca. Not surprising from you, but still.

    • Frances Locke

      I don’t think that’s fair. She isn’t signed in under her normal account (from what I can see) so there is no SEO value to her comment, and a mention of the book seems relevant to the subject.

  • EmmaFromÉire

    I feel unspeakably let down my my government. There’s no regard for women at all. The overwhelming attitude is that we just can’t take care of ourselves, or make decisoins. Someone wrote a letter to an Irish paper this week claiming that men should have the deciding say, because ”women are too emotionally attached”. Make of that what you will….
    If I seek an abortion due to my own health being endangered, or because I know full well the foetus will not thrive outside of the uterus due to birth defects, I should NOT be treated like either a criminal or a mental patient. I should not have to face up to six different medical professionals, from gynos to psychiatrists. I should not be sectioned because I have the audacity to believe abortion is the right thing for my particular situation.

    • Amanda Low

      Just, ugh. Too emotionally attached…to…the babies growing in their own bodies? That is INSANE.

    • TngldBlue

      I am pro life but I could never ever support something like this. This is horrifying. The woman who is pregnant has as much right to respect and dignity as the baby she is carrying.

  • Maureen Sagan

    The way people are treated at the hands of the mental health industry is nothing short of REPULSIVE. It is completely against human rights. They are forced to take toxic medicines against their will, forcibly electric shocked, locked up for hours without human contact or food/water, physically and sexually harassed, even lobotomized. Prisoners are treated far better. The so-called “doctors” who run these institutions are psychopaths who need to have their licenses removed. Hospitals should be places to help patients feel better, not torture chambers. It is sad so many fools put their faith in the mental health world.

    • Maureen Sagan

      Wow I forgot to talk about abortion in my comment. I think it is a shame Irish women don’t have more of a say in their own health. Women die each year due to complications from childbirth.

    • Valeri Jones

      I agree with what you say about how it can be repulsive. And I don’t really want to play the Devil’s Advocate in this case, because I think what Amanda writes about it horrible. But I can’t help but think about murderous psychopaths who are locked in mental institutions because of their evil desires NEEDING to be forced to take medication, and NEEDING to be forced to have shock therapies or even lobotomized because society, and themselves as a person, is better off without it. Just saying.

    • Maureen Sagan

      Very very few people in mental wards are ‘murderous psychopaths’. Those types are either in prison or free in society, waiting to strike. I was institutionalized for having severe anxiety; my roommate suffered from depression. She was once locked up in isolation for 24 hours without bathroom, water, or food for refusing the pills they gave her. The nurse tore out a chunk of her hair when she resisted. I was there 5 weeks and the day I left the psychiatrist told me I may as well kill myself because I would never function in the real world without the meds they tried to force. This was 12 years ago – today I’m a successful architect and designer with 2 children. The drug they tried to force on me has been BANNED by the FDA because it was proven harmful.

    • Valeri Jones

      Ugh. That’s a horrible story. I’m so glad that you’ve overcome that.

      It would be nice to see an overhaul of the mental health system. Maybe different facilities for different classes of mental health. Definitely not having people with anxiety locked up with psychopaths. And then maybe the people with the lesser mental illnesses can actually get help that HELPS them instead of making them feel like they are crazy.

    • Maureen Sagan

      Thanks Valerie. I definitely agree with you; there are some truly dangerous people who need to be locked up. But there are harmless people suffering from anxiety, depression, eating disorders, many other problems who need a safe place to be treated with kind nurses/doctors/nutritionists.

    • Psych Student

      I am *truly* sorry for what you and your roomate went through. The doctor and nurse you mentioned should be fired and lose their liscenses – their behavior was completely unacceptable. If you were in a hospital for 5 weeks, you must have been a threat to yourself or others because hospitals don’t hold people just for fun. I am also sorry that you were given meds that are now banned. It is not uncommon for the FDA to put out meds only to find out later that for some cases, there can be problems. It’s something you should be upset with the FDA about, not psychology. Again, what happend to you and your roomate was unacceptable and what that psychiatrist said was some hardcore bullshit!

    • Frances Locke

      Don’t get me wrong, I just wrote two comments above defending the mental healthcare industry as a whole, but there have been plenty of documented cases of hospitals performing unnecessary procedures to pad bills, so it isn’t much of a stretch to think they do this in mental health care facilities too. I was just watching an episode of Date Line about it last night where a doctor admitted that this practice is rampant.

    • Psych Student

      I agree. I think that there’s a systemic problem with the medical system. It is distressing that the good of the clients/patients doesn’t come first above all else. But I suppose that might require politicians and administrators to care more about money than people. *sigh*

    • Maureen Sagan

      @PsychStudent – I was not a threat to myself or other people. I suffer from an anxiety disorder and was having panic attacks. But I was 17 at the time and my father did not want to deal with me. When I was released I was almost 18 so I began to live independently and assert control over my life.

      But as a student you idealize the industry you want to be a part of. You are not interested in actually listening to people – I’m sure you’ll make a great shrink one day!

    • Psych Student

      You’re right, I was making assumptions about you based on a lack of knowledge, and that was wrong. I apologize. Perhaps if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t do it to me. I know that you haven’t taken an ethics class and wouldn’t know the methods on how to get out of a hospital (though such information should be made available to patients who should have the right to make their own choices), but if you were not a harm to yourself or others then they shouldn’t have forcibly kept you in a hospital. You should have been able to use the legal system to refuse to take your meds and get out of the hospital. Again, you wouldn’t have known that because they didn’t tell you that, but a good, caring, shrink (and they are out there), should have helped you understand that and worked with you.

      I actually *don’t* idealize the industry I want to be a part of. I am constantly distressed by what I am being taught in school and the one-theory orientations my teach espouse. It’s sickening and I think it’s harmful to clients and a terrible thing to teach to students. Additionally, I am currently writing a book about how sex is pathologized in the DSM and psychology. There is not a single field or group in the world that doesn’t have it’s problems and it’s crap people. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t benefits to psychology and good people in the practice. Perhaps I want to be one of them.

      And actually, not that you’d know this, but I am very interested in hearing the stories of others. I’m not going to make a good shrink for entirely different reasons. Namely that I’d rather educate people about sex (if I do go into therapy, I’m going to be a sex and couples therapist). I’m actually planning on starting up my own porn company because I know that I’m pulled more towards educating other than I am letting them solve their own problems (which is what makes doing sex therapy so ideal). And again, I heard your story. What I didn’t hear was you say that you know someone who received a lobotomy or ECT. I read that you and people you know experienced mistreatment in the form of sexual and physical harassment and were forced to take meds against your will and were treated with disrespect. I hope the hospital you were at is closed because it is morally and ethically unacceptable to treat people in that way. I was defending my field by point out that we don’t lobotomize people because the notion is insane!

    • Frances Locke

      That is truly horrible. But I don’t think that experience is indicative of the mental health industry as a whole. Personally, I benefited greatly from getting treatment for depression and PPD. As I mentioned in a comment above I think the problem is that the only people getting decent mental healthcare are people with top-notch insurance or people who can pay for it.

      Though, I will add that when I sought treatment the first time around I had recently lost my job and insurance and was given emergency medicaid to cover my care and I still received great treatment so it must also vary depending on where you live and what facility you go to.

    • Psych Student

      Ok, really? We don’t forcibly use electric shock and we *certainly* don’t lobotmize people. You’re more likely to get a lobotimy to treat your epilepsy than your mental illness. There is occaional need to treat people with ECT (electric shock), but that is generally reserved for people with such severe depression that they can’t get out of bed and have tried all meds and therpay out there. Then it is done in a very controlled manner.
      Not all people in the psycholoical and psychiatric communities are great, just like not all people in any other communities are great, but they aren’t all psychopaths. Administrators at hospitals (who make the rules) may or may not have enough psychological training to know what they should be doing.
      Not all mental hospitals are good, not all medical hospitals are good. I know that psychology isn’t always up with the times and has a marginal (at times horrible) history, but it does serve a purpose and can be benificial. And we don’t f’ing lobotimize people.

    • Maureen Sagan

      Psych Student You said you’ve never been in or worked in an inpatient facility, and now you’re telling me that my experiences are wrong? I suppose Amanda (author of this article) is lying too? As are all the other people with terrible experiences I’ve heard or read about?

      Ok…I guess you are desperate to defend the field you joined, I understand. That must be what you shrinks call a ‘coping mechanism’ ;)

    • Psych Student

      Maureen, I never once said that your experiences are wrong or didn’t happen. Clearly they did, and I feel very bad for you and everyone else has had really bad experiences in mental hospitals and with psychologists/psychiatrists. I apologize on behalf of my field for negative experience that you and other have suffered. However, it is illegal and unethical to perform lobotomies on psych patients who cannot consent. I’m not saying you can’t find someone who would do it (it is also unethical – aka license revoking, to perform conversion therapy on gay kids, but it still happens), but I don’t appreciate your suggesting that we regularly lobotomize or shock people. It is not a standard course of treatment any more and for you to put it out there as if it were something that happens, that’s just ridiculous. I assume that you didn’t get a lobotomy. If you did, I suggest you sue and put the doctors who performed it in jail.
      I am defending my field because it helps people and saves lives. It doesn’t help all people and it doesn’t save all lives, but it can do good things for people. Being a clinical psychology student, I believe that most people in the world would benefit from a few sessions with a licensed psychologist (which involves talking only, no meds) to perhaps make them all a bit more sane and relaxed. There are too many misconceptions about what psychology is and what it does and I am trying to clear them up. We don’t perform lobotomies. We used to. We used to say that homosexual was a mental disorder. That doesn’t make it right, but is it fair to continue to hold it over our heads if we now renounce the ridiculous bullshit that was lobotomizing people and performing ECT frequently? The world is changing and the APA is changing with it (not quickly enough for my taste, but I can accept the flaws of my field without demonizing the whole thing).
      Again, I believe you had the experiences you had. The impact they had on you is very real. It actually doesn’t matter what the physical reality of your experiences were (though I believe you when you tell me there isn’t a difference), what matters is how you perceive your experiences. Your perception is your reality and that is all that matters. If you are still struggling with distress over your situation, you should therapist shop until you find someone who is willing to help you deal with what you experienced because all that matters is that it is real to you, thus making it a problem.

    • Frances Locke

      You can call me a fool (how charitable of you to call people struggling with mental illness foolish) but having a great therapist and the right medication when needed saved my life. Yes, there are horror stories, especially when a person doesn’t have insurance, but the good done definitely out weighs the bad.

      The issue here is the chasm that exists between people with great insurance and people who are either under-insured or have none at all. Every person deserves quality care and unfortunately that isn’t happening, at least here in the US.

      As for ECT, I think you’ve seen one too many movies. ECT isn’t painful and it’s very safe and effective for people with severe depression.

    • Psych Student

      Very well said! I am so glad to hear that you’re doing well. I too, was very much helped by meds and a good shrink.

  • Amber

    It sounds to me like Ireland is trying to create some sort of replacement for the Magdalene laundries. That makes me sick to my stomach.

  • Emily Clocke

    I just had to check my phone. Yup, it’s still 2013, not 1913. Ireland, stop treating women like breeding cattle.

  • Psych Student

    Amanda, on behalf of the psychological community, I want to apologize for your experience in a hospital. I’ve never worked in an inpatient facility (in part because, honestly, I’m afraid to do so) and I know that they aren’t all great. I hate to hear that people had bad experiences with psychology because it makes the whole field look bad and may scare away people who can get needed help from good psychologists and psychiatrists.
    I also wanted to mention that you are not “a brat for being even vaguely suicidal.” It’s not your fault you felt that way and you have a right to feel your feelings. I hate when people suggest that a “cry for attention” is a negative thing. If someone needs help and they don’t have the words, sometimes they have to use their actions instead. And that’s ok. I think that it means that the person needs help and should get it. It is acceptable, no matter how “good” life may seem to have feelings of depression and suicidal ideation/desires. I am so glad that you are able to now share your stories with us.

    • Amanda Low

      Thank you so much! For the record, I still have respect for the field of psychology — I had one (maybe two) really good therapists over the years, and I get that they’re human, too, and maybe some of those who work in hospitals get a bit institutionalized, themselves. And I really like to believe that I just had an exceptionally bad experience and that most other hospitals are better. I actually have a friend who spent some time in one after attempting suicide and she had a much better experience, so I know they’re not all bad :-) Thank you for your insights, and you sound like a really reasonable, empathetic person, so I hope you continue to pursue your education and go on to kick ass in the field!

    • Psych Student

      Thank you. It really does kill me to hear from people who have had negative experiences. I have had some really crappy therapists as well because they are certainly out there. I wish I could tell everyone in the world that you don’t ever have to put up with the first therapist you run into. Find someone you like and can work with. If you don’t want meds, find someone who won’t push you to take them. If you want someone who will kick your ass a bit, those people are out there. If you want someone who is kind and gentle those people are there too. There is lots of current research being done into the vicarious trauma that psychologist receive from working with clients with trauma histories. I think the same thing happens in hospitals. I do wish that we could mandate therapy for all staff in mental hospitals because it’s such a high stress job and they need to have a way to pass off their feelings to someone else. It is also perfectly acceptable (and recommended) to lodge complaints against really crap therapists. They may not get much more than a slap on the wrist, but done enough times, something may change.

  • SanFran

    I want to commend you for your honesty in sharing your story. I’ve suffered from mental illness my entire life, and it saddens me that it’s still such a taboo in our society. I suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum during my pregnancy and was not on the right medication. I was so sick and so depressed that I ended up in a psychiatric hospital for one week. I’d become suicidal and completely resented my unborn baby despite having wanted her so much. I wasn’t in my right mind. Being in the hospital was the best and most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced. That hospital saved my life and taught me so much. I’m so sorry to hear you had such a bad experience. I wish more attention were paid to mental health and the importance of good care.

  • CW

    Someone who is mentally ill needs treatment, not an abortion that she may very well end up regretting later. I know a pro-Life activist who got caught in a spiral of depression-casual encounters-abortion-even more depression when she was young. She wound up having something like 5 or 6 abortions before finally getting the real help she needed.

    • meteor_echo

      Pregnancy may cause a slew of mental issues that no treatment will help. Oh and, what about people who don’t want kids, then get pregnant because their birth control glitched? Would you want a woman have to carry a child that she doesn’t want? What about tocophobic women?
      Your reasoning is as full of holes as Swiss cheese. Pro-life, my ass.

    • CarynL

      But if you’d only thrown 5 or 6 actual children into the mix, she definitely would have worked out all of her issues and they’d be a happy family now, right?

  • No doctor would

    It’s really no nice that you hat to go through what you did have struggled with depression myself but the doctors in the UK are great a nurse visited and supported me weekly. I also know how the wards in the UK not through personal experience but close friends and they are pretty nice. Drs in the UK and Ireland will commit anyone who the think is a genuine threat to them self. However just because a person says they are suicidal doesn’t mean two doctors will assess them and commit them or else the hospitals would be full of 17 year olds. If a person is not an immediate danger to the selfs they will be assigned a nurse who will visit a d be monitored. If a pregnant person said they planned to go to another country for help (which can be done by a train journey of less than3 hours) or a ferry or a plain plain costing less than£30. The doctor will see that as a patient thinking rationally and therefore capable of making decisions for the self. However if the person is so overwrought they can’t think clearly they may be admitted until they can see another way out other than harm to them self, they will not be locked up for the duration and forced to give birth no doctor would consider that good for the patient. This seems to be more of a precaution so that women don’t use the I’ll kill myself as a reason for doctors to offer a termination (not saying I think that is right or wrong but its their country they didn’t want to be under British rule). No one is going to hold them captive to stop them going to the UK

    • No doctor would

      Apologies for the typo it’s meant to say. Sorry it’s not nice that you had to go through that.

  • No doctor would

    Sorry about the typos broken I pad.