Inside KGH's McNair unit: Demystifying psychiatric hospital care

Inside KGH's McNair unit

A month ago, I was voluntarily admitted to the psychiatric ward at the McNair Unit at the Kelowna General Hospital.

I was diagnosed with late-onset bipolar disorder when was 62 and I am 67 now. I had a few years when I was stable but during the past year, I was destabilized with severe depression and extreme anxiety, and was barely able to function.

My admittance to McNair was made in consultation with my psychiatrist and we agreed I needed treatment and medication adjustments that could be monitored in a controlled environment on a 24-hour basis.

We’d had previous discussions about me being treated as an inpatient, but at the time the idea of being in a psychiatric ward terrified me. Like many other people, I had a stigma about what it meant to be mentally ill and a need to be treated at the McNair unit.

I had much to learn, and I did during my two-week stay at McNair.

Contrary to what many might think about a psychiatric ward, the McNair unit at KGH is a modern, comfortable and brightly lit facility. There are group therapy rooms, interview rooms, a television room, a library and a family area, as well as a fitness room, laundry facilities and an art room.

The meal room is spacious and the food was quite good. Most everyone has a private room unless there are space constraints and a patient has to share a room with another patient.

The daily schedule starts with breakfast at 8 a.m., followed by a half-hour stretching routine for those who wish to participate and a 30-minute walk outdoors to the lake.

The balance of the day can be spent attending group therapy sessions on many topics relating to mental health and wellness. The occupational therapists are excellent and are very passionate and knowledgeable about their work.

There are many rules and protocols at McNair to keep everyone safe. Patients are not allowed to have mirrors in their room or any other sharp objects like tweezers, scissors, or pictures with glass. Long cords or straps are also not permitted.

Every time I needed to use my mirror to put in my contacts, I had to go to the nursing station to ask my nurse to open the storage lock-up to retrieve my mirror. I had to return it as soon as I was done.

The same applied to chargers for laptops. Anytime I needed my laptop to be charged, I had to ask a nurse to charge it in the storage lock-up.

The nurses work a 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift, and the two shift changes occur between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. and between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. When the shift changes are happening, we were encouraged not to approach the nursing station for anything unless it was an emergency.

The doctors and nurses descend on the floor at 9 a.m. every morning to attend to patient rounds and it is a very busy time frame. The nurses are kind, efficient, and compassionate. My hospital psychiatrist was phenomenal and had a very collaborative approach, which empowered me to make decisions on my medication and care.

The majority of patients at McNair are very kind, cooperative and intelligent. Many different mental illnesses bring people to McNair—bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, trauma and stress-related disorders, schizophrenia, suicide attempts, self-harm, abusive relationships, anger issues, neurocognitive disorders, eating disorders, substance dependency, mood disorders, dissociative disorders, sleep-wake disorders, depression and anxiety to name a few.

There are 42 beds in the unit and at any given time, the unit is full. Most patients at McNair are very diverse and are in a very vulnerable state when they arrival at the unit. The average age seemed to be between 25 to 40.

They there are from all walks of life, some are less fortunate and others are very well-to-do. Mental illness does not discriminate, it can happen to anyone, anytime no matter what your stature in life is.

There is a reason mental illness is called the invisible disease. Many people who struggle with mental health issues look completely normal on the exterior. When I tell people I have bipolar disorder, the common response I get is “I never would have known.”

I am no longer ashamed of being bipolar, it is simply a life challenge I have to deal with. I am proud of the discipline, determination, resilience, and optimism I need to stay healthy.

I have a very strong circle of care, my husband being my primary caregiver. I am so grateful for his love and devotion, there is nothing he wouldn’t do for me. I also have family in Kelowna and Vancouver and their support is appreciated. Beyond my family, I have a small circle of very caring friends who have taken the time to educate themselves about my illness. My heart goes out to patients who do not have a circle of care or anyone to come and visit them. If I were permitted at some time in the future, I would volunteer to visit those who have no family or friends to visit them.

Being discharged does not mean that I am cured. It will take weeks and months to recover and feel more like myself again. Recovery is different for everyone but one thing recovery requires is courage and fortitude and lots of self-care and education.

In many case it also means a reset from our former lives. Going back to do all of the things that lead us to McNair needs to be assessed and changed if we are truly to be well

The services at McNair are very much in need and we are fortunate to have such an amazing psychiatric facility in Kelowna.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the entire team at the McNair unit. Their care and support were truly inspiring and appreciated.

Jennifer Grant is an executive coach, image consultant, speaker and personal branding expert based in Kelowna.

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