The attraction of a haunted hospital is nothing new. For generations, Americans have sought out abandoned psychiatric wards, sanatoriums, and other mental health facilities as a way to get into the Halloween spirit. Often, this can feel like harmless holiday fun. But there is a real danger in the way these attractions and psych ward myths impact public perception of what it’s like to get mental health treatment.
Today, we’re going to discuss common myths about “haunted psychiatric hospitals” and psych ward myths. More specifically, we’re talking about how this image can create more mental health stigma for those who need help. First, let’s discuss the sordid history of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), more commonly known as electroshock therapy.
1. Psych Ward Myths – Electroshock Therapy
When you think of ECT, you probably imagine a rickety chair where a person is tortured with electricity. However, the historical reality is starkly different. While it’s true that ECT does involve electrical currents, these currents are carefully monitored to ensure that they weren’t too strong.
The goal of this treatment method was to induce a seizure, which is part of why ECT has gotten such a negative reputation over the years. But like chemotherapy, sometimes a treatment option can temporarily harm the body to help it heal in the long term. In fact, ECT remains a valid treatment option at some mental health centers (although we do not offer it at our mental wellness center), and actress Carrie Fisher famously wrote about how ECT helped her manage her depression.
So, where does the myth come from? The causes are twofold.
First, most people react negatively to the idea of ECT. It’s a scary proposition, and many may not understand how it helps the brain heal. This fear led to the common use of “electroshock therapy” in horror movies. And now it’s “common knowledge” that ECT doesn’t work, even when the science is largely in support of this treatment option.
And the second cause is that, in some cases, ECT was abused. Some clinicians in the 1950s used ECT as a way to control their patients, and there were instances where patients were threatened with ECT for misbehaving. Moreover, at the time homosexuality was categorized as a mental illness, and ECT was prescribed as a way to change the sexualities of sexual minorities. This treatment was obviously unsuccessful, and it was often traumatizing for LGBT patients who had to undergo it.
These misuses of ECT should always be remembered so that they are not repeated, but that does not mean that ECT has no value in modern medicine. It continues to be a reliable treatment option for depression and bipolar disorder. But since “haunted hospitals” retell (often exaggerated) stories of patient abuse without explaining that the medical field has changed, many individuals are afraid to reach out for mental health care when they need it.
2. Padded White Rooms
Often, the image of a mental health hospital is a white, sterile environment with padded cells for each patient. These padded rooms were used so that patients at risk of self-harm couldn’t hurt themselves. However, they stopped being widely used in the 1950s. Regardless, the image of a sterile, padded cell still terrifies people to this day.
However, the modern mental health treatment center looks very different. At our Ohio mental health center, for instance, patients receive comfortable rooms with normal amenities like dressers, beds, private bathrooms, etc. While we do everything we can to keep patients safe and secure, we do not lock people away in cells, contrary to what is shown in movies.
Part of the fear around the padded white room is the feeling of being trapped. But our treatment center, like many others, is entirely voluntary. Patients are allowed to leave if they wish, and nobody can force them to start or continue treatment. While our medical and mental health professionals may make recommendations for a patient, the control is always left in the hands of the person receiving treatment.
3. Psych Ward Myths – Straitjackets
Among the fears perpetuated by haunted hospitals, straitjackets are perhaps the most widespread. Nobody wants to feel that loss of control, and there is a real fear that seeking mental health care will mean subjecting oneself to that kind of discomfort. So, what’s the history of straitjackets?
Straitjackets were first invented in the 1700s, when they were seen as humane. This is because, at the time, doctors largely did not understand how to treat mental health issues like schizophrenia or anxiety. As a result, the best they could often do was to restrain patients so that they didn’t harm themselves or others, and straitjackets were seen as more comfortable and more “civilized” than tying someone in rope or with chains.
Sadly, that is not where the story ends. Straitjackets continued to be popular into the early and mid 1900s, but they were not used correctly. During staffing shortages, straitjackets were sometimes used indefinitely, since staff lacked the resources to monitor all of their patients. As a result, they were overused and used incorrectly, which led to the idea that they were regularly used at psychiatric hospitals.
Thankfully, this is no longer the case. With patient care now at the center of mental health treatment, straitjackets may still be employed, but most mental health centers do not carry them, including ours. While they can still be useful in some select cases for temporarily restraining a patient who could hurt themself or others, straitjackets are not nearly so common as popular culture would have you believe.
What Changed in Mental Health Care?
As you can see, these myths around psychiatric hospitals are not entirely unfounded. Abuses did happen, and people were hurt. Denying that would only serve to allow these abuses to happen again, which is unacceptable.
But thankfully, a lot has changed in mental health care. There was a huge push for an increase in patient rights protections, which now ensure that this kind of systemic abuse cannot be repeated. And developments in how we understand behavioral health have also changed how certain treatments are administered, so patients do not undergo unnecessary treatments.
And perhaps most importantly, we now understand mental health much better than before. That means that recovery is more accessible than ever, but these lingering myths can make it hard for people to access treatment. Going to a “haunted psychiatric hospital” can sound fun, but these operations exploit real suffering and perpetuate misinformation. So this Halloween, we want to debunk these common myths around mental health care and remind you that safe, respectful treatment is available to you.
If you’d like to learn more about our adult mental health program, you can call our friendly admissions specialists at 937-483-4930 or ask your questions online. The myths around psychiatric hospitals can be frightening, but we’d love to show you what real, respectful mental health care is about.