and that means I need to be "buzzed" in and out when I go to visit my friend in the psychiatric ward at the hospital. The staff have seen me so often that they recognise me and, if they see me coming, they will buzz me through before I can ring the bell. They don't ask who I have come to visit either, just tell me if they think I need to know something or they want me to do anything. One of them even jokingly suggested that they should provide me with my own swipe card.
Most people in the ward do not get regular visitors, indeed some don't get any. Other patients will get visitors at weekends and some must get visitors in the evenings. Visiting hours are generous - from 8am to 8pm. I have also been told that, if necessary, visits can be made outside those hours. I doubt it would make much difference. People still would not willingly come. Many people dislike visiting hospital anyway.
I have watched the other visitors. They go nervously in and out. They look, at best, anxious. They are uncomfortable about being there. It is clear that mental illness frightens many of them even though the patients in this area are considered to be no danger to anyone - except perhaps themselves.
As part of my teacher training I had a placement in another psychiatric ward. It was another locked ward. There were two doors to the ward and both of them were kept locked. There were armed guards present. The patients were considered a danger to themselves and to other people.
My role, along with one of my fellow students, was to provide "art therapy". Neither of us knew much about what was expected of us and there were serious limitations on the materials and equipment provided - no knives, no scissors, no string or anything else that might be turned into a weapon. So, we took along some clay - and at the end of the term we had a small exhibition of things the patients had made. I don't know if we really did anything to help but the patients seemed to enjoy the experience. Most of them talked to us. Sometimes it did not make sense but often it did - although sometimes not in ways that other people would necessarily recognise.
Did it bother me being there? If I am honest I suppose I was not completely comfortable. I was only nineteen at the time. I did not have much experience of the world, rather less than many other nineteen year old students. I would not have chosen to go but I was not given a choice. It was where I was assigned.
I would not feel completely comfortable there now but the ward I am currently visiting does not bother me. The door is not locked because the patients are violent. It is locked to ensure that the staff know where the patients are, so that they don't - as some of them would - wander off or deliberately injure themselves. Most of the patients would not do either. They are simply incapable of it. Some of them cannot make decisions - even offering them a choice of tea or coffee can agitate them.
It makes no difference.They are ordinary people. It's why I will go on visiting my friend and chatting to the other patients who are wandering the corridor and the garden or the television lounge. It could be any of us.