If you have no experience with treatment programs for mental illness, you probably see residential treatment as a last-ditch option for when things get really bad. Loaded images of padded cells, neglect, and listless patients come to mind, right? These images are ingrained in our culture and act as barriers, keeping people from benefitting from the excellent, compassionate, and cutting-edge treatment programs available. This barrier is called social stigma. The truth is: residential treatment is incredibly effective and life-changing. And it is our responsibility to challenge social stigma around mental illness whenever we can.
In order to change our minds we first have to acknowledge our perceptions and think a bit about why we have them.
Media Portrayal Encourages False Images, Complicit In Maintaining Stigma
It's no shock to learn people associate residential treatment for mental illness with being locked up when you consider these facts about how mental illness is portrayed in the media:
Over 55% of news stories about mental illness in the U.S. are associated with incidences of violence.
Police involvement is the most-mentioned consequence of mental illness.
Less than 14% of news stories about mental illness mention the possibility of success and recovery from mental illness.
Only 7% of news stories are about an individual's personal recovery story.
These numbers come from this 2016 study. It's no wonder we associate scary images with serious mental illness and might conclude that the places people with serious mental illness go for treatment are scary places.
Media portrayal is only one of the many factors that create barriers between people and adequate treatment. A quote from the same study:
"Poor treatment rates are a function of multiple factors, including the historically separate financing and delivery of mental health services in the United States, provider shortages, and stigma."
Social stigma is a discriminatory behavior and it interferes significantly with people getting the right treatment.
So if you have hesitated when considering residential treatment for your loved one, really pause and ask yourself, "Why?" Is it possibly due to the very high level of stigma surrounding the topic? If so, push back on that fear, that hesitation, and open your mind to the many incredible treatment options available around our country.
Our public mental health system may be a broken mess, but there are many trustworthy, credible, and effective treatment options staffed by skilled, caring, and compassionate people, if you know where to look.
What Exactly Is Residential Treatment?
In it's most basic form, residential treatment is a place to be held. Held with compassion, kindness, and dignity.
The residential environment allows a person to settle in and build relationships with professionals and to become known and understood in a deeper and more meaningful way than outside of the residential setting.
A residential setting allows a person to gain some distance and perspective from their often conflict-ridden home or family dynamic. With time and through structured daily life, therapy, psychiatry, and with access to other healing modalities (such as nutrition, exercise, equine therapy, neuro-feedback, to name a few), the individual in treatment is able to stabilize and reach a baseline of emotional wellbeing that allows them to address their core issues and move forward. Growth and change towards a more positive life are the most common outcomes of residential treatment.
When Do People Go To Residential Treatment?
In the simplest sense, someone is ready for residential treatment when their level of distress consistently and chronically overwhelms their ability to do things like hold down a job, complete a degree program, or maintain close relationships. In other words, when their ability to enjoy and function in life falls apart due to the overwhelming challenges of certain emotions, behaviors, symptoms, or thoughts. This falling apart may be sudden and in the form of a crisis, or it may be a slower, less obvious change in behavior or personality.
Thanks to the field of psychiatry, the emotions, behaviors, symptoms, and thoughts people with serious mental illness experience get clustered into groups called a diagnosis. Diagnoses are helpful in identifying the course of treatment that may be most helpful for a person to follow.
Common diagnoses that lead people to seek out residential care are:
Mental health disorders
Substance use disorders
Obsessive compulsive disorder
Thought (psychotic) disorders
Trauma and stress related disorders
What Happens In Residential Treatment?
Counter to common perception, the vast majority of people in residential treatment are there voluntarily. Meaning, they chose to enter residential treatment on their own and were not brought there by police or court-ordered. The vast majority of people go to residential treatment because they desperately want to be well again.
Residential treatment programs are in urban, suburban, and rural locations. Some are in building complexes downtown, others in friendly neighborhoods, and several are on working farms.
Many programs offer engaging, structured daily activities mixed with intensive group and individual therapy. Many residential treatment programs offer vocational and educational support to help their clients reach and maintain goals around education and work.
Every good residential treatment program makes the new community member feel safe and welcome upon arrival. People who work in residential treatment know that if you do not make someone truly feel safe and welcome, they will find it difficult to open up and do the hard work of recovery.
When choosing a residential treatment program, it is as important to consider expertise and professional degrees of staff as it is to consider the community you will be entering. Choosing a residential community where your strengths will be recognized and drawn out and where you will have a chance to engage in activities that bring you joy are just as important to the recovery process as the specializations of the psychologists.
Take Action Before Life Gets Unmanageable
Most people will wait until they are in crisis before considering residential treatment. But if you have read this far in this blog post, you understand why: residential treatment programs are not seen as happy, healthy places. They are seen as a last resort and only for the "worst of the worst".
We at Virgil Stucker and Associates are working every day to help people see themselves and their options for care through a more realistic and hopeful lens. We refuse to accept the stigmatizing messages surrounding mental illness. We know, through the experience of hundreds of people, that for the vast majority of people, there is a treatment approach or a residential community where they will feel at home and be able to thrive.
We tirelessly search out the people and places that are providing the best care so that we can elevate their work and connect people with their treatment programs. It is thanks to our years of experience and knowledge that we are able to help our clients navigate this complex mental health system.
Making the choice to go to residential treatment is a brave and vulnerable choice and people should be celebrated for doing so, not shamed and stigmatized. Maybe if we do this, for others and ourselves, it will slowly empower others come out of the shadows and seek the help they desperately need.