Four months ago, I fell into a manic episode. Without realizing, I did not sleep for over a week. I was in a super mood, working on crafts, cleaning the house, doing laundry. Then one morning, I looked around the house, and it looked like a tornado had run through it. Things were out of place; bedroom stuff was all over the living room and crafts were scattered throughout the house. As a therapist, I knew right away what was happening to me — I was manic.
My husband was out of town on business and I called him crying. We talked for quite a while and I was able to calm down. When he arrived home the next day, he thought it would be a good idea to go to the ER. Reluctantly, I agreed to go to an ER out of town due to the issue of mental health stigma. I worried about what might happen if someone I knew saw me receiving treatment for my mental illness.
At the end of the initial assessment, the ER staff told me I would be required to change into the clothing reserved for mental health patients. As a therapist, I knew my rights as a mental health patient. I had the right to wear my own clothing. Additionally, I feel strongly that being forced to change into clothing reserved for mental health patients identifies an individual as a mental health patient, which can be stigmatizing and diminish a person’s sense of privacy and ownership over their care. I explained I would not put on their clothes. They said it was hospital policy. I stated that I brought myself to the ER, which indicates I am seeking help for my symptoms.
Just two months prior, I admitted myself to an ER and was not required to put on their clothing then. I asked the RN to see the attending physician and was denied. I said I wanted to see the individual who was next in charge and the same RN told me, “That is not going to happen either!” So I asked to speak to a patient advocate. I was told the only person I could speak to would be a case manager. However, he also insisted that I change into their clothes.
According to the medical notes, I “immediately became hostile and yelled at the nurse.” In actuality, I became extremely upset, crying uncontrollably for well over an hour, to the point where my husband was holding me and was unable to console me. I did raise my voice at the nurse, telling her that I knew my rights and refused to change. The RN threatened that they would force me to put on the clothing reserved for mental health patients by injecting me with Haldol and Ativan and place an order for four-point restraints.
At this point, my admittance became solely about my refusal to put on the clothing reserved for mental health patients. My treatment came to a standstill. I nearly suffered a panic attack and wished I had never admitted myself to the ER.
Finally, they consulted the ER Manager who advised the staff “not to change the patient into scrubs.” The same RN came into the room saying, “Good news, you don’t have to change.” However, she said she needed to take my sweater as I could use it to hurt myself.
I was already cold and had asked for a blanket after the initial assessment, which the RN said I probably would not be able to have. She took my sweater even though it would have been difficult to hurt myself with my husband three feet away and a sitter monitoring me from the door.And again, I admitted myself as I recognized I needed help. Finally, they gave me blankets and took me by ambulance to a psychiatric hospital.
I take the rights of mental health patients seriously. It is due to the type of treatment I received from the ER staff that more individuals who live with a mental illness do not seek help.
Individuals who have a mental illness need to become aware and familiarize themselves with their rights. All patients, including mental health patients, deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Joanne Groves is a mental health therapist. She is an advocate for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), also known as the Privacy Rule, and sharing information related to mental health. Additionally, she is a proponent of ending the stigma that is all too often attached to mental illness.