You always hold your breath as you walk in the main door. It might be reverence, it might be the smokers standing in front of the no-smoking sign, but you always hold your breath. Once inside, you have to remember to breathe again, or the nurse on reception will give you an odd look as you gasp for breath.
The reception area is big, bright and clean. A trolly of library books sits near the entrance, it never seems to move, and the books never seem to change. The reception includes a coffee spot with tables, chairs and a coffee bar which never seems to be open no matter what time you visit. The building is mainly windows, natural light everywhere, the walls and floors are light colours and kept well cleaned. From the reception, a corridor slopes lazily up to the wards. Framed paintings and photos from various ‘art for health’ projects line the corridor walls, and they change every year or so. Occasionally you will pass someone coming the other way, but mostly you will complete the slope on your own; it’s not a busy place. Once in a while, you will meet a squirrel coming the other way, and it will look at you as if you have no right being there. After the slight standoff, it will jump up and run down the seating by the window heading to the reception; they will let it out; it’s been here before and knows the routine.
Sometimes I’ll take a seat halfway up if I’m early, take a couple of puffs from my asthma inhaler and reflect that when I’m out of puff, I take puffs. It’s more like recharging than medicine that way. Bang at the start of visiting hours, I reach the ward doors. The doors are pine veneer with safety glass windows and a number-coded lock. The lock combination isn’t so secret. It’s on the wall on the other side of the doors. I could read it by standing at the correct angle from the outside if I wanted to or type it in as it’s easy to remember. I don’t; however, I press the button and wait. If the door were open, I’d walk in. If someone were ahead of me, I’d happily tailgate them, but I’m here on my own, and the thing to do is press the bell. The truth of it is no one pays attention to the button. I stand there for a minute or so. Eventually, a staff member will spy me standing and come and open the door, or flash two fingers the polite way to say they will be with me in a couple of minutes. When opened, I walk into the ward and say, “Hi, I’m here to visit – -.” The staff member will direct me to the lunchroom, and I’ll take a seat and wait.
The lunchroom has a single solid wall, with a clock and notice boards. The information is for both patients and visitors. Opposite this wall is the kitchen serving area. The exterior wall is all windows and a door out to a garden. Only patients and staff are permitted out there. The interior wall opposite is panelled at the bottom and windows at the top; this is for observation. When a patient is on twenty-four-hour observation, a staff member will sit in the corridor. For a visitor, this has two effects. The first is to feel as if you are in a goldfish bowl. However, no one is interested in you. The second is a worry that the staff member is so far away, the windows producing a sense in the brain like looking the wrong way through a magnifying glass. The contents of the lunchroom are the same as any other, chairs, table, a water cooler.
If you have got this far, you may ask, what’s the point of describing a room, one that is, let’s face it, pretty dull? In answer, I invite you to think about these things. Think about all the images of psychiatric care facilities that you have seen on television, in films, most of them just lazy rehashes of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’
In dramas, you may see a maternity ward, or casualty and these are used for entertainment, but not at the expense of the patients. You may see a character undergoing cancer treatment, but again no one makes fun of cancer. There are no patients in this piece. That would just be voyeurism.
If you want to better understand mental health, there are many reputable sources. But here is a simple non-medical metaphor, mental health is like laying in a hammock. Three out of four people will spend their whole life peacefully lying in the hammock. However, one in four of us will find that the hammock rocks back and forth, sometimes severely. We may get tangled up in the hammock for some time, and everyday life will all but stop. We may also be dumped out of the hammock. We struggle to get back on while experiencing all of the above, and it will take months or years for the hammock to be still again. Forget any Mack Sennett slapstick images that may spring to mind. Even the movies have moved on from that.