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Not free

Every now and again I sit down with my PowerBook and an entry for this blog almost writes itself. It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s a rush when it does.

This entry was not one of them.

I’ve sat down half a dozen times, trying to get this one out, but it just won’t go. Maybe I’ve just got to practice some tough love. Maybe it’s time to kick it out the door and let it sink or swim.

I learned a few things this weekend. The state hospital in Chattahoochee is a BIG place. Think college campus with it’s own fire station. Most of the buildings are old, register of historic places old. It almost looked like some of the older parts of the campus at U.F., with shaded streets, scattered helpings of open green space, and four story brick buildings. What struck me as odd, and fitting all at once, was that all of the buildings were painted white. (Odd in that brick should be red, and fitting because… well, just because. Something about white seems like it fits an archetype for a hospital.)

Another revelation was the cost… as in, there is one. Somehow it seemed that involuntary commitment came with free tuition. It doesn’t. There’s supposedly a means test for the fee, but I’m not sure who’s means are being tested. It’s expensive. It’s not my expense to share, but I will give you a hint: it’s considerably more than an average mortgage.

On the bright side, there was a lot of sun in Chattahoochee this weekend. I saw it every time I walked out to the car.

The hospital was nicer than I thought it would be, but my expectations were rather low. When your major is psychology at U.F., you get real familiar with the name Chattahoochee, and it’s not from all the songs of praise. However, I did see a lot of signs that the staff make every effort to make the patients feel at home. There were seasonal decorations everywhere. The lobby and family meeting rooms were all tastefully decorated, given the budget constraints they must be under (given my own familiarity with state budgets). The terrazzo floors screamed 50s chick, but they were oddly reassuring. They fit the place, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Still, it’s hard to disguise a feeling of “you are not free to come and go as you like.” Big, heavy, locked ward doors and omnipresent nurses watching everything and everyone reminded me where I was, to the point it felt oppressive (and I was just a guest).

A few things were flat out worrisome. For one thing, the nurses didn’t seem to be the least bit intellectually curious. A few times I tried to ask friendly questions, stuff that I thought was pretty safe. I approached one nurse and asked how many patients were at the hospital… you know, in Chattahoochee.

“I don’t know.”

“Alright,” I thought to myself, “That might be a tough one.” So I asked how many patients were in that building (still trying to be friendly).

“I don’t know.”

“Not even a guess?” I asked, this time not to myself. That didn’t even merit a verbal response, just a very tired look that said, “go away.” Of course now my “smart-ass” gene kicked in, and I asked about the patients in the wards on that floor. I don’t know why I asked. I knew I wasn’t going to get an answer, and at this point I didn’t even really care. I wasn’t even curious anymore.

“I don’t know, I only work the one ward.”

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the answers weren’t given with the enthusiasm of Eore (the depressed donkey friend of Pooh).

So what was the deal? Surely this person had an idea, enough to venture an educated guess. How do you work someplace and not know a little bit about it? I wanted to ask if she was allowed to say. I wanted to talk. I wanted to crack the veneer of institutional indifference. If I wasn’t worth a small piece of human kindness, how much do the patients get? I should put this exchange in context though. Both afternoons I was there I heard the same announcement over the intercom: “If anyone would be willing to work the night shift, please call me immediately.” I think that announcement may do more to paint a picture than anything else I’ve said. I wonder if THAT contributed to the apparent indifference?

I thought again about priorities, how we pay for health care, and the apparent importance (or lack of it) we place in good mental health care.

1 Comment

  1. We’ve improved since Bedlam days, but not much. Even though it’s getting much more socially acceptable to talk about depression and anxiety and which meds you are on (I call it mental illness light) the hardcore mentally ill, the delusional, psychotic, unable to function in “normal” society still scare us and we sideline them , hoping if we don’t look, don’t touch, don’t spend money on them, they might just go away.

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