Mental Health Nurse’s Uplifting Video Shows Lighter Side of Working on Ward

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Schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, bipolar. All words that make most people uncomfortable due to a lack of information, misinformation and stigma around mental health. But one nurse has sought to shed light on what it’s really like to work on a psych ward.

“I feel that there is such a bad stigma about psych and behavioral health units because of how they are portrayed in movies or shows,” Matthew Leo, 40, a registered nurse on a psych ward in New York told Newsweek.

“People in straitjackets in a small room with padded walls, and patients screaming all day and night, barred windows. All that’s shown is trauma and doctors and nurses wanting to medicate the patients into a stupor. People are naturally scared when they hear that someone has a psychiatric issue, but portrayals in the news don’t help. Not all individuals with psychiatric problems want to hurt people.”

More than one in five U.S adults live with a mental illness, and approximately one in 25 U.S adults live with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar or major depression according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In an effort to combat negative stigma and help people to understand and empathize with people with mental illnesses, Leo regularly posts funny and uplifting videos to his TikTok page about life on a psych ward.

In one video posted here to Leo’s TikTok account, Leo can be seen joining in a 3 a.m. singalong to “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys while his patients sing enthusiastically from their rooms.

“Sometimes we just straight vibing,” reads the caption of the video, which has been viewed over 22 million times on TikTok.

Leo found that music can be transformational for his patients.

“By talking to the patients we found that music was incredibly therapeutic, especially at night when some of them struggled to sleep,” said Leo. “I asked a few of the patients if they would like to sing the Backstreet Boys and the rest was history. After a few attempts we found our pitch and sang our hearts out.”

Stigma associated with mental illness is common, and people can be scared to come forward for help due to a fear of being labeled “crazy” or “mental.”

“Another fear is the fear of mental health services, which makes patients avoid taking up treatment,” asserts Dr. Jakub S. Bil in his paper Stigma and Architecture of Mental Health Facilities, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry.

“Fear of stigma associated with a facility appears,” Bil continues. “For many patients, hospitals become their home for weeks or months. Despite all improvements introduced to mental health facilities, they are still labeled and stigmatized. Psychiatric hospitals are often associated with a penitentiary, an asylum, or a substitute of a panopticon. The stereotypical image of a psychiatric hospital is inseparably linked with this object.”

A panopticon is a design of an institutional building that is circular, allowing officials to see and observe all inhabitants at all times, created by the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

Psych nurse Matthew Leo, 40. He regularly posts uplifting videos to his TikTok account.
Matthew Leo

The stigma surrounding mental health is universal, and a 2016 study published in the journal EMBO Reports (European Molecular Biology Organization) concluded that “there is no country, society or culture where people with mental illness have the same societal value as people without mental illness,” a quote originally made by American sociologist Erwin Goffman in 1963.

The most rewarding part of the job according to Leo is seeing people work through the worst moments in their lives, and find themselves again. “Seeing their excitement and enthusiasm to get back out into society is the best thing,” he said.

Despite the long-term rewards, the job is not without its stresses.

“It’s a demanding profession,” said Leo, “and it can be draining dealing with people and their problems. Understandably, some are frustrated, angry, sad, depressed and suffering from the effects of a wide variety of mental illnesses, and it’s not easy being their human punching bag at times so that they can release the built-up feelings.”

He believes the most influential change that needs to happen to reduce stigma around mental illness is the misinformation surrounding psych wards, arguing that people should be better educated about mental illness.

“This is why I made my TikTok page, to show what life can be like on a psych ward,” he said, “to show people who are clueless that the patients are people too, and to show people who are struggling that they shouldn’t be afraid to seek help.

“If the world only knew or got the chance to see what these people are actually like, then maybe more would be understanding, and not judge a book by its cover.”

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