Not a ‘looney bin’: removing the stigma around psych wards

Trigger warning: this story includes mental health, depression, anxiety and inferences of suicide in its content.

Jane* uses TikTok to tell her mental health story. Photo: Felicity Smith

Psychiatric ward, mental hospital, asylum – these words provoke imagery made famous by horror films and scary stories. The insides of their walls are often subject to misrepresentation and Hollywood’s own brand of tale-fuelling terror. As entertaining as these often sensationalised stories are, they present a real problem for people struggling with their own mental health issues.

Jane*, a Melbourne woman aged in her 20s, wants to change those perceptions. She’s started making TikTok videos about her experience being a patient in a psychiatric facility.

Her full name isn’t used on the app to protect her privacy, but there are times where she does show her face on screen. Sitting in her living room, Jane explains she’s trying to remove the stigma surrounding psychiatric wards through social media. Despite this – Jane is still concerned about backlash she may receive from the wider community.

“I feel like younger people are more accepting of mental health issues, most TikTok users are on the younger side,” Jane says.

Her first video to gain traction was a tour of her hospital room posted a year ago. Jane walks around and notes elements such as the handles, taps and railings that are slanted to prevent patients from hanging anything on them, as well as commenting on the large amount of nurse call buttons, and demonstrates the appliance cords are inaccessible for patients.

She’s been admitted on multiple occasions and often posts updated room tours for her followers. Jane replies diligently to the comments on her videos. Most are supportive, but some users leave harsh criticism. “You can’t be struggling that bad if you make Tik Toks. Stop wasting beds,” one user commented on a video of her and a fellow patient titled ‘Psych ward fun’.

“This is a big misconception, just because I’m in a psych ward, it doesn’t mean that I’m depressed and sad all the time” Jane says. She explains, in a response video, that her mental illness has extreme highs and extreme lows, and admits such comments are triggering. “My anxiety has been bad since yesterday. I’ve been vomiting and crying every hour, and I can barely touch my phone,” she says.

Jane tries to keep her video subject light and informative, steering away from joking too heavily about her own traumatic experiences. It’s a Tik Tok trend which sees many users sharing their severe negative experiences in a light-hearted manner. “It’s just not necessary to share it all, everyone’s problems are different. You don’t know what people are struggling with. What we’ve got in common is the treatment routes,” Jane says.

Although she admits it may have not started this way, she’s determined to use her small social influence to help people. “That’s kind of what I want to do later in life, something like motivational speaking, I want to be able to remove some of the scariness around treatment,” she says.

Melbourne community mental health practitioner from Mind Australia, Jessica Wardell, also wants to remove the stigma around mental health. But she’s concerned about the consequences of patients who share their experiences on social media, as well as any vulnerable viewers. “What’s concerning is many successful mental health Tik Toks I’ve seen focus more on traumatic and possibly triggering subject matter. When an individual shares these kinds of things within a facility, there is professional support put in place to deal with any emotional or behavioural shifts,” Wardell says.

Although Tik Tok intends to trial banner warnings to slow the spread of misinformation, the app is yet to develop a system to flag possibly problematic content with trigger warnings. The minimum age for Tik Tok users is 13, and the average user is between 13-25. As of March 2021, Tik Tok had almost 700 million users. Anyone one of them could scroll upon unsettling content.

Wardell works at a youth sub-acute care facility in Melbourne and worries the external validation, and even possible monetary gain, from successful videos will hinder individual recovery progress. “If a patient ties their online identity to mental illness, it places another barrier to recovery. There may be less incentive to undertake the programs if they know getting better will affect the content they put out,” Ms Wardell says.

A Melbourne study published by researchers at the Centre for Adolescent Health links the overuse of smartphones to exacerbated stress, poor sleep hygiene and symptoms of depression. Wardell says excess social media screen time is getting in the way of patients’ recovery.

“Phone overuse in facilities makes it harder for patients to disconnect with outside stressors. As important as it is to remove stigma around using these facilities, the patients are there to heal and learn valuable skills. This isn’t always possible if they’re not engaged with their surroundings,” Wardell says.

Another factor to consider is privacy and consent. “There’s a grey area if people are filming others in in-patient care facilities. It’s not always clear if they’ve gained the consent from others to film, or if it’s even ethical in the first place,” Wardell says.

Wardell is hopeful that there can be a positive place for social media within the domain of mental health awareness. “It would be good to see a rise in Tik Toks talking about professionally-taught coping mechanisms, or stories of recovery to give people suffering with poor mental health hope,” she says.

* Jane is not her real name, a pseudonym has been used.

If you or anyone you know has been affected by this story, you can contact any of the following mental health support services:

Lifeline: 13 11 14, www.lifeline.org.au

Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467, www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

Beyond Blue Support Service: 1300 224 636, www.beyondblue.org.au

MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978, www.mensline.org.au

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800, www.kidshelpline.com.au

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