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What is a Mental Hospital?

By L. Burgoon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A mental hospital is a medical facility for people with mental disorders who have not responded to less drastic treatments such as therapy and medication. Also known as a psychiatric hospital, psychiatric facility, or mental institution, it is staffed by specialists trained in treating mental disease. Some patients are voluntarily admitted to mental hospitals to address and treat disorders. Others are involuntarily committed on the advice of medical professionals or by a court. Common ailments addressed in a mental hospital include depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety problems, personality disorders, and schizophrenia.

A mental hospital may be privately run or a public institution. The layout usually resembles other types of hospitals, with patient rooms, doctors’ offices, and a nurse station. There is more security in a mental hospital, with locking doors, gates, and grates over windows to prevent patients from leaving.

Specially trained medical personnel work at mental hospitals. Most facilities have multiple psychiatrists and psychologists on staff to treat patients. Nurses likely are specially trained in helping patients with mental disorders. Similar to other hospitals, there also is a support staff consisting of nurses' aides, orderlies, administrators, and custodians.

People with mental disease sometimes choose to admit themselves into a mental hospital for treatment. Some patients are in crisis such as experiencing suicidal thoughts. Others need to have their medications adjusted in a controlled setting. Mental hospitals are also home to involuntarily committed patients, i.e., those sent there by order of the court system. This occurs when the mentally ill person refuses treatment, but poses harm to himself or others.

Most mental hospitals treat a wide spectrum of illnesses. Some of the most common disorders involve mood problems — such as depression and bipolar diagnoses — and anxiety or panic issues. Patients with these illnesses usually have short-term stays in mental hospitals to control the condition, with follow-up treatment occurring on an outpatient basis. Those with a major illness, such as schizophrenia or dissociative disorders, sometimes must remain in a mental hospital for longer stretches or even permanently.

Modern mental hospitals grew out of what used to be known as insane asylums. Mentally ill people were confined to the asylums and treated much like prisoners, with very few privileges and no treatment. The asylums usually were dark and dreary with no amenities.

The notion of treating the mentally ill began to change in the mid-19th century with the Kirkbride Plan. Conceived by psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride, the plan advocated state-of-the-art facilities to treat people with mental illness. Kirkbride believed the asylum facility was integral to mental disorder treatment and designed buildings with patient comfort in mind. Usually built on sweeping grounds in private areas, Kirkbride asylums helped change the perception of the mentally ill and treatment options. Although his grand designs have fallen out of favor, Kirkbride’s notion that the facility setting helps heal patients carries through to many mental hospital approaches today.

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Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Feb 05, 2014

Mental hospitals are also where people can go to get their medication adjusted on an inpatient basis, where they can be closely monitored.

They usually have four departments: long term, acute/short term, forensics and mentally retarded. Most people are initially admitted into the short term unit, since they may stabilize within the usual 72-hour initial evaluation period. This is when they are seen by a psychiatrist and evaluated for their symptoms, medication, treatment plan, etc. Most short term patients are out in about 14 days or less.

Long term units are for those who cannot function in a less restrictive environment, such as a group home, and cannot manage their own care.

Units for mentally retarded patients with mental illness create a safe environment for these individuals who require specialized care.

The forensics unit is for those who have committed crimes due to their mental illness. These units feature strict security and protocols to protect the staff, as well as the patients.

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