When my old therapist told me to admit myself to the emergency room, I laughed at her.
Your mental health is critical — no matter what. Regardless of the circumstances or the state of the world, protecting your mental health must be prioritized. Especially during a pandemic.
When my old therapist told me to admit myself to the emergency room, I laughed at her. It was 9 in the morning, a full 24 hours since I attempted suicide.
“The drugs probably aren’t even in my system,” I whined into the phone.
Like any rational person, I had no interest in visiting — much less staying at — a hospital in the middle of a pandemic, especially one in Ithaca, given their limited medical resources.
Of course, my therapist didn’t care. She was insistent and refused to stop badgering me until I was in an Uber there.
I waited nervously outside the emergency room entrance. I had never been to the hospital for psychiatric reasons, not to mention during a global crisis. I had a mangled, reusable grocery tote full of assorted clothes and toiletries.
“I’m here,” I said between puffs of a Marlboro Light. “Isn’t this dangerous? Admitting during a pandemic?”
“Not any more dangerous than trying to overdose,” my therapist replied.
During COVID-19, I made the common mistake of assuming my mental health was not a priority.
Despite the pandemic being incredibly stressful — a failing economy, a spreading illness, and a significant interruption of routine — I assumed that the physical ailment of COVID-19 outweighed the importance of my mental health.
I thought that it was safer to sit with my pain than risk infection by going to a hospital. Conversely, going to a hospital — even in the middle of a pandemic — was the exact thing I needed.
When I walked into the hospital, I was greeted by a masked volunteer who asked for an inventory of my symptoms.
“Any chest pain, shortness of breath, or fever?” she asked behind the protection of a surgical mask. “Nausea, diarrhea, or body aches?”
Admitting to the hospital with mental health concerns was awkward. Everyone around me was either admitting with COVID symptoms or experiencing some kind of physical pain.
“I’m here for psychiatric reasons,” I shyly said.
There’s always something strange about being vulnerable with a stranger in this way. In order to get help for my issues, I had to be open and honest with someone who didn’t even know my first name.
The secrecy I had enshrouded myself and my mental health in was lethal. Getting help required a level of transparency and openness that I wasn’t used to. I had built a moat around my depression and anxiety with intense isolation. Building bridges with others was foreign but necessary.
The volunteer directed me to the front desk where a masked nurse was sitting. After cross-checking my information with the admitting phone call my therapist made, I was directed to triage for additional services.
The whole thing felt strange and surreal. Physically, I felt fine. A little spaced out from the medication, sure, but ultimately okay.
I had always imagined triage to be a place where bloody, broken people went for stitches or tourniquets. I felt out of place despite my mind being mangled beyond recognition.
However, despite physically being safe (later confirmed despite the medication I took), I mentally wasn’t.
Triage wasn’t only an appropriate place for me, but exactly where I needed to be.
After being assessed and asked a series of questions (“Do you know what date it is?”, “Do you know where you are?”), I was taken to the emergency department while I waited on a psychiatric evaluation.
The waiting was the most surreal. Between admitting to the emergency department and actually being discharged or taken to an inpatient unit, you have some time to think. I thought about my life. I thought about all the things that happened in the past to put me in an emergency room bed.
I thought about my friends, my enemies, my significant other who I had already decided to break up with. I thought about Black people, how the entire world sees us as disposable. I thought about medical racism and the paranoia I felt of hospital staff.
I thought about food and how I was too wracked with germaphobia to eat from the sterile tray they put in front of me. It’s like having all the time in the world to think.
Eventually, a woman came by later to evaluate me, determining I needed inpatient care.
The idea of being “sentenced” to inpatient was stressful enough, compounded by all the COVID panic. I was extremely anxious about sleeping, eating, and living somewhere in a hospital setting.
What if someone came in with the virus and spread it to the rest of us? What if we all had to remain quarantined in the hospital? Usually, inpatient stays are supposed to be 1 to 2 weeks long, but what if COVID meant that I would be there longer?
My stay could be summarized as completely normal. Not only was I able to stay for an appropriate length of time, but I was safer being in a hospital environment.
Every surface was cleaned multiple times a day after being touched. Everyone — residents and staff — were wearing masks, adhering to the recommendations of state and federal health agencies. Every precaution was taken to stop the spread of the virus and keep us safe.
Food was served in prepackaged bundles. Social distancing was enforced throughout the facility, including giving every patient their own room and also making sure we were distanced at the tables.
Nothing about COVID interrupted the mental health treatment I was getting.
I was still able to find help when I needed it most, even in the most nerve-wracking of circumstances. I still had a mix of telehealth and in-person meetings with therapists, psychiatrists, and social workers. We were all still given the option of groups and other leisurely activities.
Our care wasn’t compromised by COVID, even if our minds had been.
Even more so, we as patients were still able to create a community together of shared pain and solidarity despite fearing what we could spread to one another.
I was able to trust that health providers were taking the virus seriously — therefore I was able to focus on mental healthcare versus my anxieties around germs and illness.
The collective time I spent in inpatient treatment was hard but extremely helpful. I initially struggled and suffered with putting me and my mental health first, especially given the pandemic happening around me. However, doing so saved my life.
If it hadn’t been for my inpatient stay, my mental health would’ve deteriorated further, having lethal consequences.
Besides being completely safe to do, admitting into the hospital may save your life the way it saved mine.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman and freelance writer, musing about all things race, mental health, gender, art, and other topics. You can read more of her funny thoughts and serious opinions on Twitter.