Some call it a madhouse, a theater for the freak shows, or a home for the misfits, but the truth is, one would find themselves walking along the halls of what seems to be a hybrid of a nature-filled retreat house, a white-walled hospital, and a prison with rooms for isolation. On the outside, it is nothing special, but as one looks and listens closely, it’s anything but typical.
When art imitates life
Psychology professor Dr. Richtofen De Jesus couldn’t have prepared himself as he entered the National Center for Mental Health (NCMH) in Mandaluyong City as an intern. The then-undergraduate was finally in front of what used to be just words on textbooks and chalkboards. Wide-eyed and full of questions, he stepped into the hospital and did not expect what he saw.
As if being inside a movie, what he first noticed was that in the public ward, whether one is a male or female, patients were required to have shaved heads to avoid the proliferation of lice as well as using hair as a defense mechanism.
He admits that this struck him the most. “What was shocking for me is when I saw female patients were also bald. Syempre, some of the people there, they also give importance to the kind of appearance that they have.”
Aside from this, he also had observations that seemed to come straight out of movie scenes such as going inside Pavilion 4 where they kept the criminally-insane. He recalls seeing dungeon-esque rooms with cement doors and tiny windows, smelling a putrid odor that resulted from not being able to control elimination of urine and fecal matter. Dr. De Jesus also recalls seeing schizophrenic episodes in real life as a patient had to be strapped down to his bed with a cloth to prevent harm.
A similar experience was shared by Jhenalyn Tan, also an intern in the psychiatric institute of Hospicio de San Jose. For six months, she spent her time in the child psychiatric ward, overwhelmed by the incidents she witnessed firsthand.
“It shocked me that the kids were getting intimate despite the strict care of the people around. Sometimes a young male patient would masturbate in the presence of other people,” she recalls.
Indeed, there are times when what seems to be an exaggeration of the media’s depiction of issues, such as mental health, turns out to be the reality of life.
Going beyond fiction
Fiction never runs short of images of mental institutions; we have films and popular shows to feed our imaginations, twisting them into all sorts of contortions, all of which are misconceptions. Shock and dismay may register, but all hospitals purposefully revolve around the welfare of the patient. It is then up to the individual institution on their interpretation of this purpose.
“It [NCMH] doesn’t look like a typical hospital. It looks like a conglomeration of different retreat houses,” Dr. De Jesus describes, adding that these facilities are broken down into different pavilions or wards for the different illnesses.
Dr. De Jesus also notes that, in a way, a mental hospital resembles a prison being that it also has cells that resemble jail rooms. He points out that what sets the two apart is a mental hospital looks more of a retreat house with its well-kept gardens and trees for the patients to enjoy a breath of fresh air.
With that in mind, mental hospitals are still far from the media’s sensationalism. Life inside a mental hospital is not a series of circus tricks, an epic setting for a horror show, or a touching narrative to justify a villain’s evil schemes. Instead, a mental hospital is ideally a place to gasp for air, cough out water, and be in the comfort of people who want to get better.
Unfortunately, what is beyond fiction could be worse—reality. Like most general hospitals, there is a public ward and a pay ward, with the latter undoubtedly being more maintained and well kept.
“The problem with a mental hospital is that it discriminates primarily to those patients who pay and those who don’t,” Dr. De Jesus expresses.
The fact that facilities like these have been made available to the public doesn’t change or move the division between the poor and the rich. Mental institutions are not immune to discrimination in various degrees, whether rampant or not among the community. Ironically, while all patients are already in disadvantaged positions, the more money one has, the more care they receive. People who can pay for treatment are treated with quality, while those who cannot have to wait long periods or make do with subpar conditions and facilities.
The second thing one must keep in mind upon entering a mental hospital is that once you step inside, you will never be the same again. For Dr. De Jesus, it made him want to be a better professional for the patients and to help them out of their situations. For Jhenalyn, on the other hand, it made her see these people differently.
“There is the thought that there are people out there that you will never understand. But in the end, while others see them as patients to study, they also have feelings. They are humans and they should be taken care of,” Jhenalyn muses.
As speculators of what goes on inside mental hospitals, we can only notice a few glaring eccentricities but never see where the damage has been done. In the medical world, a trauma can be seen in the form of a fracture or a bunch of open wounds. When it comes to mental illnesses, a trauma is manifested through nightmares, flashbacks, and spacing out. Due to the differences in the nature of physical and mental illnesses, it is paramount that people who are mentally ill must have their own space for recovery.
Dr. De Jesus says with finality, “Mental illness is just like physical illness. You cannot ignore it. It’s important to us to have an open and holistic mind towards how we should help ourselves in terms of our functionality. We should always entail that the mind and the body are not separate entities, they are one.”