For 7 1/2 days this spring, reporter Kevin Heldman went undercover as a patient in a city-run psychiatric ward. In the June/July City Limits magazine, available on newsstands now, he provides a rare portrait of how the poor and mentally ill people are treated in city hospitals.
Heldman, winner of a 1998 National Mental Health Association Award for excellence in reporting, showed up at Bushwick’s Woodhull hospital at 3 a.m. one morning and was admitted without being told what was happening to him. From that point forward he was ignored, left in the dark about his rights, characterized by staff as being delusional even though he showed none of the symptoms–and was almost given the wrong medication.
At a cost of about $8,400, Heldman got a total of three hours of group counseling, four hours of dancing and stretching and a mere 25 minutes with psychiatrists. Other patients received similar treatment.
Psychiatrists recognize the need for intensive counseling and therapy, but patients who reached out for staff contact during Heldman’s confinement were often yelled at or told to go away–while staff members watched TV or discussed party plans.
In one incident, Heldman watched as Michael, a distraught patient, demanded to be released–or at least given towels to dry off after his shower. “Soon, about five young men–therapy aides from other units–appear on the floor,” Heldman writes. “As the aides converge they greet each other, horseplaying, playfully hitting and pushing one another, joshing and joking, loudly laughing and guffawing, giving one another high fives, while Michael loses his mind a few feet away.”
On another occasion, Heldman, who had never told anyone he suffered from hallucinations, was given potent anti-psychotic medication. “I’m given a pill and a cup of juice,” he writes. “No explanation. I ask what it is. ‘Mellaril,’ she says. Several times I ask what kind of drug it is, and each time the nurse offers a vague answer. Finally she explains, ‘It’s for your delusions.’ I tell her I don’t have delusions and refuse it.”
In the article “7 1/2 Days,” Heldman updates classic studies of inpatient psychiatric wards to expose a new generation of problems. “I was locked up, never told when I could get out or how I could get out,” Heldman says of his 179-hour ordeal. “I was provided with virtually no counseling or substantive treatment” The city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs Woodhull, refused to comment on the story or even to provide basic information about their procedures.
Also in City Limits: Why the Lower East Side building boom may collapse–literally….How an innovative Bronx economic development project died as a result of its own ambitions and lots of bad luck. To purchase a copy of the issue or subscribe, call 212-479-3344.