Last night I took an 11 year old child for an emergency psychiatric evaluation.
The hospital was actually very nice as far as psych ERs go, because it specialized in pediatrics. There wasn’t much wait time, and the place was clean and bright, and we were spared frightening visions of adults in acute phases of their illnesses.
The staff was also very nice: the child had to be seen by a medical intake team, a psychiatric intake doctor, an medical nurse practitioner, a social worker, and a psychiatrist over the course of five hours. Everyone treated this child gently, and they even gave us dinner while we waited.
But it was still scary. Because it was a psych ward. And in a psych ward you are locked in a room with no doorknobs and no moveable furniture. It may be painted like a foggy forest of beech trees, and the floor has sparkles and tiles shaped like friendly marine animals, but that doesn’t hide the fact that everything is smooth and there is nothing that you can break off and sharpen, and nothing that has loops or protrusions, so you can’t hang yourself off anything.
And the security guard has to sweep a wand over your shivering torso. And the nurse takes your can of ginger ale pours it into a paper cup. The adult you’re with says, “I see what we’re doing; do you want these?” and shows her the plasticware that had come with your meal. The nurse takes them, of course. Sharps.
So of course you sit there wondering if what the bullies said about you is true. Maybe you really are crazy and imagining it all.
And unfortunately some of your friends had mistakenly thought they were in an after-school special and got a visceral thrill perpetuating the drama that you were acting “crazy”. They thought the fact that you muttered to yourself, because you were too afraid to speak aloud, or because it was the only way to calm yourself, looked like schizophrenia, and they felt so caring and important reporting that to the school psychologist.
After all, the school’s investigation had concluded that there was no clear evidence of bullying. Or if there was, it got lost in the shuffle of blaming the victim.
(I would say there are many explanations as to why questioning other kids didn’t turn up hard evidence. Maybe the harassment was mostly below the radar, and some of the witnesses sided with the perp because they didn’t want to be next in the line of fire, and sometimes the events happened in unwitnessed moments.)
So “crazy” seemed possible to the administration and the school psychologist. Because the accused perpetrator seemed entirely rational, and you had been reduced to such a quivering, hysterical mess, and was no longer a reliable reporter. Crying so hard, so shut down, you couldn’t tell your side of the story or advocate for yourself.
But that didn’t mean the bullying wasn’t happening. It didn’t mean you were hallucinating or paranoid.
And so a lovely, fragile child, who maybe was predisposed to victimization because of certain qualities beyond their control (a rough start in life, a quirky personality, not very resilient, certain learning deficits, minority status, isn’t as popular, blah blah blah…) was told none of their peers corroborated their perception of events. Therefore, maybe the events weren’t happening. Maybe it was just in your paranoid, hallucinating head.
The end result was the best possible in such a case. No psychosis. Just an acute episode brought on by a perfect storm of prolonged, unrelenting stress: a move into middle school, the adoption of iPads for nearly all schoolwork, oncoming adolescence, and most of all months of harassment from the “popular” kids. I was glad to hear from medical professionals, instead of school administrators, that it was just as I had suspected. I was so happy to be able to tell this child that there were adults who believed, who had seen far too many cases like this, where the victim ends up in the scary place, trying to prove their sanity, because they can’t prove their victimization.