The Real Deal: Working in Mental Health

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a mental health professional? Interested in working in a psychiatric unit? Here’s the real deal.

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For almost six years, I have worked as a Mental Health Professional on the adult inpatient psychiatric unit of my local hospital. For most, the phrase “inpatient psychiatry” conjures up images of lobotomies, “electric shock therapy” without anesthesia (thanks to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestand animalistic behaviors from would-be patients.

Well, I’m here to tell you that 90% of what you would expect from a “psych ward” does not occur, at least not where I work. Some days are adrenaline-filled and hectic while others can be boring and tedious.

You’re in charge of the safety of others
The most important task done by every member of our unit staff is that of “observation rounds,” wherein the whereabouts of each patient are verified and documented at regular intervals. The person holding the all-important clipboard is the eyes and ears of the unit, and is responsible for the safety of the patients, visitors and staff on our unit.

You will be doing things outside of your job description
As a mental health professional, I complete my rounds before or after I help pass out breakfast. While the majority of my job involves running groups throughout the day, I also pass out lunch and search for contraband in the belongings patients bring in with them. As with any job, mine is not without paperwork — mental heath professionals complete notes detailing patients’ participation in group activities, as well as any problems that might have occurred through a patient’s interactions with their peers.

It’s fun!
It may sound strange, but it can be a lot of fun! We invite patients to play games with one another, we watch movies together, and getting to know people from all walks of life are some of the perks of the gig. The older patients we serve have an endless amount of stories from their younger days, and many times we are able relate to our patients through our common interests or similar backgrounds.

But, it can be difficult as well
That is truly the nature of mental illness — that it can strike any person at any time regardless of what kind of education you’ve received or the title you hold. It does not discriminate between sex, age or race.  It is disheartening at best to hear patients admit that their families understand very little of what they are going through. Surely, if anyone could simply choose not to be depressed, anxious or overwhelmed by strange compulsions or thoughts of suicide, no one would have a mental illness.

You do give out medicine and other treatments
Yes, doctors prescribe medications (antidepressants and antispsychotics among them). And yes, patients are restrained when it is deemed necessary for the safety of themselves, their fellow patients and the staff. And finally, yes, Electroconvulsive Therapy (not electric shock therapy!) is still used today and I have seen first hand the benefits of such treatment. As a professional at an “acute care” facility, I see patients at their worst and lowest and once they are stabilized they are sent off to their next level of care — either a day hospital program or their own therapist and psychiatrist or some combination of those.

You’re having such a strong impact on people’s lives, and your own
To be in a field that helps people through some of the most trying times in their lives, to keep them safe and send them on their way when the time comes is not only worthwhile but rewarding as well.

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