This is what it's really like to have your child as an in-patient in a psychiatric ward

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

I never expected to set foot in a psychiatric ward in my lifetime, but if there's one thing that parenting teaches us, it's to expect the unexpected.

What really surprised me, though, was how much I'd like it there,  and how reluctant I'd be to leave.

It was my 12-year-old son who was admitted to the ward, after he tried to take his own life and I drove him to the emergency department at our local hospital at about 9 o'clock one Wednesday evening.  

After spending a sleepless night sitting by my son's bedside, a doctor who had assessed him told me he had "an ambivalent approach to living". Which was polite doctor-speak for "he doesn't care if he lives or dies". 

"We'd like to keep him in," the doctor told me. 

I remember feeling a flood of relief. My son's depression wasn't news to me – I'd been worried about him and what he might do for the best part of a year. 

I'd spent months watching him like a hawk, concerned about his self-harm and his self-loathing. I listened to every inane thing he had to say, because I was terrified I might miss something important – a clue to how he was feeling, or what he might be planning.

As a single mother, I felt the immense burden of responsibility. I was the only thing between my son and oblivion. 

And then, suddenly, I wasn't. There was an entire team. 

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My son was taken directly from the emergency department to the hospital's secure psychiatric ward. It was bright and clean, with a comfortable lounge room in the middle, which was surrounded by 12 single bedrooms, which were all lockable from the outside. 

When we were shown to his room, my son was politely asked to hand over his belt, his iPad, his phone, and anything might be able to use to hurt himself. I was sent home to bring back books and clothes.

Although he was furious at losing his "lifeline" of screens, my son soon settled into life on the ward. I visited each morning and afternoon for an hour or so, but was encouraged then to go about my day and leave my son with the psychiatric team.

He participated in individual therapy, group activities, quiet time in his room, and board games in the lounge with the other kids, and he attended the hospital's school, along with children who were being treated for everything from a broken leg to brain tumour. 

On one visit, I'd stayed about an hour and was about to leave when a kind-faced woman with a long grey ponytail in a floral dress asked me if I'd like to stay for art therapy. Thinking I'd sit at the back of the room and watch while a small group of tweens and teens threw paint at some paper, I agreed.

Instead I found myself front and centre, participating in the class. 

"Everyone go through these magazines and make a collage that shows what you'd like your next holiday to look like," the art therapist gently instructed.

I could feel myself choking up before I even opened my first magazine. I flicked without commitment through some five-year-old Vogues and assorted pull-outs from weekend papers, hoping that would be enough. 

The children all chatted excitedly about where they'd like to go – Hawaii, Sydney, London – and then the art therapist gently touched my hand.

"What about you, hon?"

It was all I could do to not burst into tears. What I wanted to say was that I couldn't think beyond next week right now, that I was terrified my son would never get better, and that I had zero aspirations about sun, sand and cocktails by the pool. How could I when my world was on fire and I didn't know how to put it out?

"I can't decide," I smiled, leaving out those other things.

"You'll get there," she smiled back with certainty, showing she'd heard everything I hadn't said. 

My son stayed in that secure psychiatric ward for just over two weeks before he was allowed to go home. He was relieved to be back to his iPad, his room, and his music. 

For me, it was a new kind of high alert that lasted another two years before his awful illness started to abate. Every night, I missed the certainty of knowing someone was watching him and he was safe. Every day, I felt the weight of being the only person between my son and something awful.

We visited that hospital several more times, but he was never admitted to the ward again.

Today, my boy is a happy, healthy teenager – still with some anxiety issues, but nothing like before. I sleep much better at night too.

But I'll never forget the kindness of the staff at that hospital, and the sense of normality and optimism they gave not just the children, but their families. 

This year has seen a rise in young people visiting emergency rooms for mental illness-related issues, thanks largely to the isolation and strange days of COVID. And while that's a sad statistic, it also means each of those children is where they need to be, and they're accessing the help they need. 

It may be not what anyone expects, but it's definitely not the worst option.

If you are worried about your child's mental health and you'd like some support, you can:

  • Call 000 in an emergency
  • visit your GP and ask for a mental health plan
  • go directly to a psychologist
  • call Lifeline on 13 11 14
  • call the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
  • call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636
  • advise them to call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800
  • visit the ReachOut website
  • visit the Headspace website