What “groups” in mental hospitals are really like

I was frequently asked about the “groups” in mental hospitals. Most people who have never been inside a mental hospital assume the “groups” are state of the art. Sadly, this is not true. Most “groups” are hardly that. Many are run by completely untrained “staff” who have no competency to lead groups. They have indeed had training similar to what prison guards get trained in. They get trained in how to pin down a patient. They get trained in where the panic button is. They know how to call Security. They know how to get in touch with the supervisor. They know who the boss is, and how to identify the target patient they assume will make trouble, the ones they are planning to Medicate out of his/her mind later on.

Most staff have no idea how to run a group, so they have handy “cheat sheets” they use. These are handed to the rookie staff, printouts telling them what to do. “Have the group sit in a circle. Each group member says his name. Ask each group member what his favorite movie is.

I’m serious! These groups are very juvenile, especially if you are NOT a juvenile. They are as insulting as having seniors play children’s games and talking baby talk to them assuming they like that.

Many times, patients are spoken to slowly, as if we can’t understand otherwise. Or talked over. Or just ignored. Patients who are assumed to be psychotic are left to their own devices or flat out disregarded. I’ve heard staff say, “His feelings don’t matter,” or “He doesn’t really have feelings like other people,” or, “We won’t ask,” or, “He doesn’t care.”

Patients who are overdrugged often cannot verbalize their needs. Sometimes their basic human needs are disregarded, in and out of group, even bathroom needs. I have seen patients with their heads down, drooling, almost passed out in the back of group. I was concerned about one guy. i was pretty sure he was in medical shock and something was going to have to be done. He was drooling bad and his skin was not the right color. Finally a nurse came up to him. He couldn’t lift his head up. She couldn’t get an answer from him. All during group he’d been like that, passively sitting there.

So the group leader couldn’t seem to get him to answer, “Can you tell us one coping skill you used today?”

I remember my well-meaning friends used to call me and ask about “groups.” What could I tell them? They assumed well-educated, sensitive “therapists” ran these groups, and that we patients actually benefited, that we actually learned and grew and “got better.”

College is supposed to be like that. It was, for me. I learned from every class and my instructors were well-qualified. I remember leaving each and every class and feeling like I’d gotten something out of the class. I also felt that learning was MY choice. I loved participating in each class, and I almost always was well-prepared. I found it tough when I wasn’t! That plus the instructors got frustrated trying to teach when the majority were unprepared. However, the reading we had was usually interesting, because I chose classes that were varied and stimulating.

That’s not how it is in a mental hospital. You don’t choose to be there. Many have chosen or ask to get help, but they somehow miss the boat by making us play children’s games. I don’t see how Bingo really helped us, or any of those kiddie games, or playing with stuffed animals, or trying to role-play over and over and over.

I didn’t mind art therapy, if it was done in an adult manner. Art classes can be done for adults or they can be taught like kiddie classes. Sadly, some of these group leaders acted like kindergarten. They wrecked art therapy, which really can be done respectfully if you realize that art is not really playing with toys to a professional artist.

Watch a real professional artist do art, or a photographer or sculptor, and you realize that this is not kiddie play. I have seen amazing talent out there outside of the mental world. I am saddened that these group leaders wrecked art for so many patients. However, I am glad that many were able to retain the dignity in art that it truly is, and maintain it as an expression of beauty and passion.

Are any of you ex-patients so sickened by the sight of miniature golf that you’ll never ever play it again? Yes, they had us play that and worse in the nuthouses, too.  What next? Sandboxes? Maybe teddy bears or they’ll just stick pacifiers in our mouths to silence us.


2 thoughts on “What “groups” in mental hospitals are really like”

  1. Hi Julie, I was only in one of those groups once, during a brief inpatient stay (my last) in 1972. A woman who was clearly distressed but perfectly coherent was trying to tell us how her husband beat her up every time he got drunk. The staff member told her to quit being disruptive. She wouldn’t shut up, so the staff asshole just talked over her and asked for the next person to speak. I said “Hey, let he have her say!” Staff asshole told ME to quit being disruptive. And I did, because I wanted to get OUT of there.
    About art therapy- I can’t remember where I read this, but some college textbooks on Becoimng an Art Therapist have chapters on what to do about “the problem of having a genuine artist in Therapy.”
    “The problem.”

    1. Hi John it would be great if you ever found that textbook! Yeah I know, I think I saw somewhere in a therapy textbook, The problem of what to do if your “client” is smarter than you are.” Yeah, problem all right. The real problem was the most of those group leaders didn’t even recognize when we talked circles around them…..

      What really got funny was when they were “educating” us about the “meds” and they were reading those handouts about the “side effects.” “You might feel a little tired on this medication….”

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