Having gone through the process of being admitted to a psychiatric ward three times and in different hospitals, I have seen many procedural patterns. Most people are admitted to a behavioral health unit as a preventative measure against suicide, and if you think you are in danger or may lose your sense of inhibition soon, that is a good time to go.
The admitting desk gave me two wristbands – one for general and one to designate me as a psychiatric patient. They will take vital signs, and nurse will do a short triage evaluation. Depending on the hospital in the emergency room you go to, you will likely be taken to a cubicle or ER room quickly, but I always waited an average of 4 to 5 hours before being admitted.
A nurse will ask you to change into a hospital gown or other hospital wear, and they will give you a clear plastic bag for your belongings. A general medical doctor will come do an evaluation, probably followed by the on-call psychiatrist. I was asked the same questions repeatedly by different people – what medications I was on, if any, what brought me in, what my symptoms were. If you are a woman, they always seem to ask if you are pregnant, could be pregnant, and when your last menstrual cycle was.
They will ask if you are a danger to yourself or others and if you have plans to hurt yourself or anyone else. After several hours and questions, a person from behavioral health will come and ask if you are willing to go to their inpatient psychiatric ward voluntarily. Depending on the state and facility, if you go voluntarily you are not placed on a 72-hour hold.
From the ER, an orderly pushed me in a wheelchair through several drafty halls, in and out of an elevator or two, accompanied by a security guard who got us through all the coded doors. If you get there late at night, you might only see 2 to 3 staff members on duty. First, someone sat me down to ask another round of questions about why I was there, what medications I was on, etc. They weighed me and took vitals again while someone else went through my things, keeping everything that could be dangerous, like laced shoes, pants or sweatshirts with drawstrings (though you have the option of keeping them if you are ok with removing the strings or laces).
They lock your wallet, valuables, cell phone, and any other sharp of hazardous belongings in a closet or storage room. Some hospitals may not allow pens, and none of them allow wire-spiraled notebooks, electronics, or anything with alcohol in it (hand sanitizer, mouth wash, hair spray). They supply you with a bag of safe toiletries, such as toothpaste, toothbrush, possibly a hair brush, shampoo, and lotion. The things they let you keep go in a paper grocery bag and they show you to your room.
I have shared a room with several roommates, and the beds in the ward are rarely empty more than a night. Luckily, there will likely be a bathroom stall or maybe even a shower in the room. If there is a window, it will be sealed shut and covered by a wire screen. Some places do a “skin search,” which means a nurse or staff member of the same gender comes into the bathroom with you to make sure that you’re not hiding anything in your bra, underwear, or vagina. It does not take long, but it is awkward, though after five or six hours I was too tired to care as much as I might have otherwise.