Painful Memory — Was I Abused in Hospital?

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Reader’s Question

I’ve gone a long time feeling like something wasn’t quite right with my experience in a mental hospital about three years ago. The head nurse was doing a skin check and she basically used force to undress me. I remember crying and feeling disgusting and dirty.

I don’t know whether I’m overreacting, and I can never tell anyone why this was such a painful experience, because I’m terrified of being told that this huge source of anguish in my life was nothing. I don’t know, I’m just tired of this pain and fear that I’ve felt since it happened.

Psychologist’s Reply

Although mental hospitals have come a long way from when they used to chain up and otherwise abuse their patients (we have Dorothea Dix to thank for many of the reforms), they still can be quite problematic. Most of them are perpetually underfunded and understaffed, and the staff they do have frequently are not trained as well as they should be. Consequently, many patients do not have positive experiences there. That seems to have been the case for you.

There can be several reasons for a skin check, but I’m guessing the purpose for the one you had was to discover if you had been harming yourself, specifically by cutting. Self harm can be a way of dealing with a great amount of emotional pain. Many people (mostly teenagers, but also adults) purposely cut themselves because it makes them feel better. While some people who cut do so in places that are easy to observe (like wrists and arms), others cut in places that are difficult for others to see. Thus, a skin check is conducted in order to determine whether cutting has been performed. As cutting is something the person doing it often does not want others to know, I imagine that some patients can be quite resistant to it.

What happened to you was not nothing. The forcible removal of your clothing was a violation. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “violate” as “to do harm to the person” and “to fail to show proper respect.” It sounds like this nurse both harmed you and did not show respect for your right to be treated gently. There are other methods of completing a skin check that would have taken your feelings into account, yet she failed to use them. Instead, she did something that probably felt close to a rape because she took away your sense of power and control.

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I do not believe you are overreacting, but it does sound like you need to work on healing from this horrible experience. Counseling may be one avenue that you could try. A mental health professional who is trained in the treatment of trauma could assist you in working through this experience so that the pain and fear are not so intense. Another method of healing could be to attend a group that deals with trauma.

Whatever method of healing you choose, I hope you do something soon so that you can move forward. The head nurse dictated what happened to you in the mental hospital. She should not be allowed to dictate the rest of your life.

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