Growing up, I was always taught that hospitals were there for you in times of crisis. If you had insurance or the ability to pay, doctors and hospital staff would stop at nothing to make you feel safe, cared for, and well again. As I’ve grown older, I became aware of the financial roadblocks that made it nearly impossible for some people to receive care. I naïvely thought that’s where the shortcomings of the American healthcare system stopped. So when I received a call from my friend letting me know they were ready to end their life that night, I convinced them to go to the emergency room with me. I knew the doctors would take care of everything.
My friend and I waited for a psychiatrist, sitting side-by-side on a stretcher in the narrow hallway of the emergency room. They didn’t have room for us anywhere else. The screams and crying of people either high, in pain, or both did not stop for one moment.
Waiting. 9:00 PM turned to midnight. Someone comes to give them a blood draw. Waiting. Midnight turned to 3:00 AM.
At 3:00, my friend was finally wheeled to the psychiatric section of the hospital. The RN who was assigned to guard us, lest my friend be physically restrained, congratulated us. She said it’s not unusual for people to spend over 24 hours in the hallway.
We were relieved – help was finally here. Or so we thought. The room in the psychiatric unit felt like a solitary confinement prison cell. It clearly wasn’t meant for visitors – the staff found a plastic chair for me to sit in. They took away my friend’s bag, their phone – even their shoes were deemed too dangerous. There was nothing in the room but the stretcher, my chair, and a large sign of rules. The room had dirty walls, no windows, no clock. I tried to ask a nurse what the time estimate was. He told me: “We don’t do that here. You aren’t allowed to ask that.” I go to give my friend a hug and he yelled at us. No touching allowed. He said if I did one more thing wrong I’d be forced to leave. None of those behaviors were on the rules list.
“This is a place of healing,” the sign read on the wall.
9:30 AM, over 12 hours after voluntarily admitting to the hospital, my friend was allowed to leave.
How are people supposed to get help when they’re treated like caged animals? Going to the hospital is a last resort—when someone is at their lowest point. Instead of being nurtured and cared for, my friend was guarded and locked up like a prisoner. That isn’t how a person heals—it’s how the notion that they’re broken or crazy is reinforced. If another person came to me in a crisis, I would never suggest going to the hospital again.
As I shared how appalled I was at the experience, others came forward and shared their similar stories with me. As it turns out—this is nothing new. Despite the increase of mental health disorders in America in recent decades, our healthcare system seems to be playing catch up. I want people to be able to receive the care they want and need. I don’t have a solution. I’m just disappointed. I’m just angry.
—Emily Mozzone, Lead Designer