Recently I volunteered to enter the psychiatric ward of a hospital. This was a locked section of the hospital devoted to people who seemed likely to harm themselves. Like many of the other inmates, I was there because I romanticized about suicide. Though I entered voluntarily, discussing with a psychiatrist the idea of suicide got me locked in there against my will. After a few days I decided that the hospital wasn't so much fun. I smiled at everyone and discussed my plans for dealing with my situation in a positive manner. I was released.

But anyway, this writeup is not about me. I'd like to discuss some of the people there--the inmates and the guards.

The inmates

The majority of people in the psychiatric ward say they are suicidal. I suppose if they were really suicidal they'd be dead--there are sure ways to kill oneself. Some of them tried methods that are bound not to work--taking pills and chemicals or slashing up their arms. In actuality, most people in the psychiatric ward either are too cowardly to kill themselves or they wish to continue with life but are too weak to get through the days. I probably fall into both of those categories.

Although men commit suicide about three times as often as women, approximately 75% of the inmates were women. The ages ranged from early 20s (college students) to 50s. Almost all of the inmates were victims of rape and/or sexual abuse. I did not understand the destructive impact of sexual predation before I listened to the stories of the inmates in group meetings. Memo to all rapists: The pleasure you gain from rape is far, far outweighed by the suffering of the victims. Not that you care.

Many of the men and women in the psychiatric ward were quite obese. I attribute this to the fact that they got little enjoyment from anything but food. Most inmates were not insane. Their conversations were rational. It is not necessarily irrational to wish to die.

The guards

About 80% of the nurses in the psychiatric ward are male. Most are quite frail and probably many are homosexual. I suggest that the job attracts both people who care about others and people who wish to control others. The nurses who fall into the former category were passive and pleasant. They ask how the inmates are doing and they go out of their ways to make them happier.

The more interesting nurses are the ones who appreciate their job because it gives them a feeling of power. It was difficult to deal with these nurses. In private counseling meetings, they would pry and probe into my personal life. I sensed that this was not because they wished to help me, but rather because they wished to embarass me. Instead of focusing on the germane aspects of going on with my life, they would concentrate on irrelevant details of my problems.

The most power-loving nurse led hour-long mandatory group discussions in the evenings. He was intensely serious. Any interruptions, such as an inmate using the restroom, were strongly discouraged. It was essential to the nurse that everyone be there to receive his invaluable help. The inmates would discuss their problems. For instance, one man described his years of being molested as a child and said that he wished to commit suicide because he could no longer handle the pain. In my opinion, this man's mentality is very simple and understandable. However, the nurse saw something quite deep. The nurse made a dramatic pause, closed his eyes, and opened them as if he had uncovered a brilliant thought. Could it be that you identify with the perpetrators, and you want to hurt yourself like they hurt you?

Time and time again the nurse would come up with bizarre analysis of the inmates' very straightforward emotions. I learned that the best thing to do was to agree with this nurse--make him feel like he was being incredibly helpful, stroke his ego. One time in group I said that I was feeling quite good and that I was no longer suicidal. The aforementioned nurse responded with Is this raising red flags with the rest of you? Raise your hands if this raises red flags. Most of the inmates raised their hands, though I feel they were intimidated by the nurse.

I treated a few of the nurses like my patients. I sensed that they were more screwed up than I. Another reason I catered to the less-than-moral nurses is that the nurses have much to do with one's being released from the hospital. If one does not attend the group meetings and does not pretend the nurses are helping him, the implication is that he does not wish to improve--he is so suicidal that he has no hope.

Summary

While some people are genetically predisposed to severe depression, I believe that many of the inmates at the hospital had problems so painful that the majority of "normal people" would not be able to effectively handle them. The inmates at the hospital tended to be incredibly polite and kind. Probably their empathic, highly-emotional natures made their problems more painful to them than they would be to others. The nurses were often equally kind, though many nurses seemed to appreciate their authoritarian role more than their therapist role.

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