You can see some of the world's craziest and darkest secrets in a psych ward, and for some employees, it's a miracle they made it out unscathed and alive. Whether they're dealing with diseased patients determined to spread their illness, violent prisoners, or just whacked out kids, these poor workers had to operate under some truly stressful, not to mention dangerous, conditions.
We searched through Quora looking for the most heart stopping, thrilling tales of the dangers workers face when dealing with psychotic patients. These workers share the experiences that made them question if they should ever step foot in a psychiatric institute again. All posts have been edited for clarity.
This Patient Had The Sweetest Smile, But Darkest Past
“When I was in my graduate program, my favorite professor gave us a warning. She said she knew at least some of us would soon work at a particular psychiatric ward since there were only a few of them in our area, and she knew the staff was not always properly alerted to the dangers of this one patient.
Apparently, years earlier, a teenage boy had attacked his parents with a knife. He believed aliens had invaded the bodies of numerous humans, including his parents, and he was the only one who could recognize these aliens hiding in the human hosts. He was convinced if he could just cut open one person to reveal the alien inside, he could save the world.
Aside from this one single delusion, he seemed perfectly normal and pleasant. The problem was with newer staff members who were unaware of his past, and more experienced staff members who had been sufficiently warned but just couldn’t believe this sweet, polite young man could really still pose a threat. You didn’t want to be the one who naively gave this guy a sharp object or even a ballpoint pen only to have him look in your eyes and see the twinkle of what he believed was an alien hiding inside. He absolutely would attack you without warning.
I don’t know many details of the case, just that his parents did survive, this happened in south Mississippi, and my professor said he would likely never be released.”
She Could Never Wear Brown Shoes Again
“When my Aunt Cindy worked at an in-patient psych hospital in upstate New York in the early ’80s, she was introduced to a man who had a shoe fetish. She was told, by several staff members, to never wear brown shoes, and to NEVER shake his hand.
However, when someone extends their hand, most of us, in the US, are socially conditioned to do the same. So, she forgot, and stuck her hand right out. He apparently grasped her hand tightly, and my aunt would’ve had a difficult time getting out of the grip, except that the man’s hand was completely covered with a questionable substance.
As she was washing up, a few of the other staff members were laughing at her. She was upset and asked why they didn’t remind her of the warning. One of the guys shrugged, and said, ‘We thought, maybe, you didn’t believe us since you’re wearing brown shoes. We figured you wanted to see if we were just messing with you.’
As soon as she got home, she threw that pair of shoes away. From that day on, until the day she died, Aunt Cindy never owned another pair of brown shoes.”
You Know What They Say About Kids Who Harm Animals
“There are a lot of scary cases when you work in pediatric mental health mostly because of the age. I recently had a kid come in who has a history of killing animals in the neighborhood, skinning and impaling cats, crushing glass shards into dog food and leaving it at the park, some messed up stuff that is definitely indicative of some serious underlying issues.
The scary thing is that the parents were basically okay with this behavior until the kid woke them up in the middle of the night by plunging a huge knife, more like a meat cleaver, into their mattress directly between them. He wasn’t sleep walking and seemed perfectly aware of what he was doing. When they asked him what he was doing and why he just did that, he told them he wanted to kill them to ‘see if your insides are like Fluffy’s,’ which was the name of the neighbor’s cat that he impaled on a spiked fence post a couple weeks prior.
Oh, he also poured Clorox into his little cousin’s glass of milk. Thank god his mom noticed the smell before the kid drank any of it. They didn’t reach out for help with his behavior until well after this Clorox incident, I think there were at least three months between the Clorox and the meat cleaver incidents.”
The Voices In His Head Were Telling Him Very Disturbing Things
“I was a student at this time. I was with my group mates (three girls and me) assigned to a psych institution when we interviewed our subject. This is how it went.
ME: ‘Hi! How are you today?’
SUBJECT: ‘I’m fine.’
ME: ‘That’s great! So, we’ll ask you a few question to know you better. Is that okay?’
SUBJECT: ‘That’s fine. It’s been a while since I talked to people from the outside.’
ME: ‘Cool. You can always talk to us, don’t worry. How did you end up here? Did you do illegal substances or suffered from any substance abuse?’
SUBJECT: ‘NO! I just hear someone whispering in my ear; a lot of them.’
ME: ‘Oh! So what do “they” say?’
SUBJECT: ‘A lot of things actually. Different things.’
ME: ‘So, are you hearing them now?’
SUBJECT: ‘Yes! “They” never stop.’
ME: ‘What are “they” telling you?’
SUBJECT: ‘They’re telling me that I need to kill you.’
My group stood up and took a step back while looking at him with fear.
SUBJECT: ‘Oh! Don’t be scared. I know “they are bad.” I’m not going to follow them.’
We stayed standing up for the next five minutes, which seemed like hours still asking him questions. It ended well and we shared a laugh after.”
They Couldn’t See This Attack Coming
“A cousin, who is a psychologist, told me of a patient at an inpatient facility who sat across the desk from him chatting about his violent rages, then reached behind him and grabbed the thin rope off the window blinds behind him and whipped it across the desk and around my cousin’s neck in a half knot in three seconds and started pulling.
A guard was outside the door and my cousin was able to knock his lamp off the desk to alert the guard. The guard rammed open the door and got the guy – who was laughing uncontrollably – on the floor. My cousin was shaken by how fast it happened and had seen the patient before with no fear and no anticipation of a problem.”
They Need An HIV Test After This Incident
“In the ’90s, I worked over-night and weekend security at a center for psychiatry that cared for in-patients, out-patients, and even the criminally insane awaiting trial. That area of the building was basically a prison. Police would often bring in the arrested for evaluation and the homeless could even walk in and ask for help. We saw all kinds. I did this job for years and some nights got very, very busy.
Two scary situations really stick out from those times.
The first, I was manning the front desk and a walk-in patient holding a knife walks in screaming, ‘I want to kill myself!’ He had cut himself all over his body and was covered in blood. My supervisor quickly rifled through the database and found him. History of violence against staff, AIDS, Hepatitis, and more. I was commanded to put him down. I approached him with a chair as a shield. When he wound up to swing the knife at me I rammed him, with the chair until he went down. Then a bunch of staff jumped in and everybody put one foot on him until he was better subdued and eventually sedated. A doctor was in my face right afterwards yelling, ‘Did he touch you? Did he cut you?’ I wasn’t sure until after an examination.
The second incident started when two police brought in a tough looking guy for assessment. This guy was keeping his head down, not saying anything. I led them to a secure observation room. The arrested man and one officer went in, the other cop returned with me to get our information and to see if he was in our database. Suddenly, my partner, who was watching the monitors, jumped up, hit the alarm and ran back the way we came. We ran after, the door was opened and we saw the guy wailing on the officer with his handcuffs like a one-handed flail. The other cop did most of the work in this case and the arrested man was pretty much laid out on the floor. How did this happen? In my quick inspection, I noticed that his hands were funny. They were all covered in blood from the fight but something wasn’t right. I looked closer. ‘This guy doesn’t have a thumb!’ Even the ball socket that attaches the thumb to the palm had been removed. The cop looked at the other hand. ‘Good god!’ Both thumbs were removed. They cuffed this guy and didn’t notice he was missing both thumbs. The cuffs would just slide off. I still think about that guy. How? Why? For what reason? What crazy world was he apart of where something like that could happen? I still wonder.”
This Patient’s Obsession Simply Went Out Of Control
“My dad was with a patient who had an obsession with pencils. He had a collection of different, unsharpened pencils in his shirt pocket.
My dad was in charge of monitoring the patient, so when the patient fell asleep, he began charting. Taking out a writing utensil, he began writing.
Just then, as the pen touched the paper, the patient woke up and became hysterical. ‘MY PENCIL’ he screamed. My dad tried to calm him down by telling him, ‘Okay, here, you can have it,’ while calling security.
The patient began charging at my dad to fight him when just then, security arrived and restrained him.”
Whatever Happened To This Little Girl
“My mother is a special education teacher at an elementary school and had a little girl I will never forget.
Her parents were very, very white trash looking and were in jail for trying to kill each other so she was a ward of her elderly grandparents. She had behavioral issues and would get violent at times. One day, her grandmother told my mom she walked in on the girl in the unlit living room squatting in the cat’s kitty litter having just had a bowl movement and now vigorously pleasuring herself while watching the tv.
My mom had to call the state to have her put in a secure facility. By the time the state came, she had set fire to their house. I often wonder what happened to her. She’d be well into her 20s by now.”
He Just Wanted To Create Order In His Hectic Life
“Last summer, I did an internship in a psychiatric hospital in Argentina. During my tour, I saw a bunch of unsettling things, but I’ll always remember one of them.
It was a patient diagnosed with a personality disorder who sometimes lost touch with reality; he also happened to be a man who wanted to become a woman.
One night, he entered the psychologist’s office through an open window. Next, he did the following: he made three boilers of coffee and put them on the ground; he broke a lot of stuff in the kitchen (chairs, tables, cups); he took off all his clothing and painted his face with green (some sort of makeup); lastly, he fell asleep on the ground, next to the three boilers. We found him like that in the morning.
When we asked him why he broke the stuff, he said he wanted to ‘make order.’ For the face completely painted with green, he said he wanted to be more like a woman. He seemed completely out of reality so after scolding him, the professionals ended up laughing it off. That son of a mama mia.”
This Sweet Little Girl Turned Into An Entirely Different Person Overnight
“When I was a young adult, I worked overnights in a residential treatment facility for severely abused children in central Texas. Every night, I was in charge of helping bedtime be a happy time and overnight observation to make sure all the girls (ages 8-16) stayed in their rooms. I was also in charge of making sure there was a caring adult present in case of night terrors or bad dreams. There were eight girls in my dorm.
One of those girls was a sweet but eccentric 15-year-old girl. We will call her Darla. Darla was diagnosed with pre-schizophrenia. She was known to be violent if frightened, and so was on some heavy meds. Darla wasn’t the social type, but always had a kind look in her eye, so I made it a point to reach out to her. She had been acting more strange than usual lately as they were adjusting her meds for social reasons. This resulted in some self-care change, as well: she would comb her chin-length hair up and away from her face, all around her head, giving her a kind of wild ‘walking into the wind’ look. This combined with her very thick glasses resulted in quite the visage, to say the least.
Because it was time to sleep, we would lower the lights. The hall light was very dim, and my desk was at the end of the hall in a sort of reception area/living room. Darla’s room was at the other end of the darkened hall on the right. We had to toss it earlier in the evening because someone said she had stolen a butter knife from the kitchen. We turned up no knife, but she had pilfered finger cots from the kitchen. When we asked her why she had so many, she said she was practicing fooling around safely with herself. The staff thought this was a little humorous but in a sweet, innocent kind of way. We let her keep the cots in exchange for helping out in the kitchen.
This was before the internet, and I didn’t use the TV on overnights, so I could better hear if someone called out to me. I would sit and read at the desk, with a clear audio and visual bead on that hall. It was hard to stay awake, but I managed as long as I stayed at my desk (and off the comfy couches) and got up periodically to stretch and walk around.
There was a sound, a low, muffled groan followed by the sound of something being dragged, a sibilance, from darkened the end of the hall. When I heard it, I startled and realized I had fallen asleep sitting up. There was a dark shape leaning against the lefthand wall at the back of the hall. At first, I didn’t know what it was, the angle of it was so awkward. I felt the adrenaline dump, and my heart began to pound. It moved forward, dragging itself jerkily along the wall until it came into the dim light at the back third of the hall. It was Darla. Her thick glasses were skewed on her face, not even covering her eyes. Her hair had exploded into a mass of wild tufts.
I stood up and came around the desk. ‘Darla, honey, did you have a bad dream?’ The groan, again. She had stopped the shoulder dragging because she’d hit the first of three doorframes on that side of the hall. She didn’t look fully aware. I waited. ‘Darla?’
Darla locked her unseeing eyes on me, lowered her head, and lurched her body across the hall to drag herself along the wall on the other side of the hall. She slipped into another dark space, unlit by the dim overhead lights. She groaned louder, it turned into an angry yell. When she hit the doorjamb on that side and threw herself across the hall again under the light, her sweet face had become a mask of hatred. In her hand was that butter knife.
I reached back and grabbed the receiver on the desk phone. I hit the quick dial for the boy’s dorm where they kept at least three well-built staff on duty at night. ‘Need assistance for a possible restraint on dorm 8, Darla has a knife.’ I set the receiver down without hanging it up. Darla was slowly bumping and sliding her way down the hall, groaning, yelling, looking murderous. I heard the door behind me open, and two large staff came in. They brushed past and quickly but gently restrained and disarmed Darla.
It was like she woke. She looked around, and seeming confused, asked what was going on. She wasn’t violent at all, just confused. They told her she had a bad dream and now it was time to go back to bed. I walked with them to her room, my heart still pounding. As she climbed into bed and covered herself up in her typical wall-facing position, I brushed the wild hair away from her face, removed her glasses and folded them up on her bedside table, and managed a smile. ‘Sleep sweet, Darla.’
From then on, Darla was secured at night. One of the side effects of the med change was sleepwalking. We had to toss her room daily for two weeks until she stabilized. She had hidden the butter knife on her person, between her buttocks, so the nurse had to do body checks.”
This Worker Couldn’t Get His Threats Out Of His Head
“Having worked in a variety of different settings over the years, I have had a lot of contact with different kinds of patients. I have worked with people that have had serious psychotic disturbances, personality disorders, autism, and serious forensic behavior problems. Over the years, I’ve heard a huge variety of obscenities and threats made against me: ‘I’m going to burn your house down,’ ‘I’m going to kill your family.’
But, the worst thing that a patient has ever said to me – in or outpatient – was when a psychotic patient once told me: ‘I’ll get you in your dreams.’ That was the one thing that resonated stronger than anything I have ever heard a person say to me, the one thing that actually gave me nightmares.
What do you say to that? It wasn’t so much like a just-in-passing way of saying it, but of a much more serious tone. As if the person knew something that I didn’t.
That freaked me out. About a week later, I did dream of him. Oh, the power of suggestion.”
He Couldn’t Believe The Stories His Coworker Shared
“On a late night work trip, I rode with my boss to pick up a psych nurse before we journeyed onward. I was expecting a tall hospital building. Instead, we pulled up to a guard shack and a city block surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Several large two-story buildings were enclosed within the fence. It was a hospital for the criminally insane.
After we picked up our nurse, I asked him about his job. I asked if he had any interesting stories he could share. He mumbled a bit about having some tales he could tell, but quickly switched the subject. But he opened up as the night wore on.
One patient was nicknamed ‘The Bomber.’ He could make a bomb out of nearly anything and had to be supervised. He would try to collect materials to make a bomb within the facility. He loved blowing up things. He didn’t try to blow up people intentionally, but he didn’t care one way or another if they happened to get caught in the blast.
Another was ‘The Dinner Lady.’ She had stabbed her family to death while they slept, then posed them at the dinner table as if they were having a meal.
But the one that actually scared him was known as ‘the patient.’ He had spent five years planning the kidnapping and torture of his own stepfather. He had gathered medical equipment to make sure his victim remained alert and alive. The first step was to starve his victim nearly to death and keep him hovering on the edge of death by using a feeding tube. After that, more torture would occur. He had planned to slowly torture his stepfather for over a year before finally killing him.
He kidnapped his stepfather and strapped him to a table and had started to starve him for just three days when he was caught.
But the thing that scared the nurse was that ‘the patient’ would get it in his head to target other people for minor, insignificant reasons. And he plotted vengeance on a five-year timescale. This also meant he would be passing the release board after nearly 20 years at the hospital because he had no near-term plans to hurt anyone (at least that he revealed).
Our nurse said he was sure to not be assigned to the same ward as ‘the patient.’ He was also careful to avoid making eye contact at meals and in the common areas. All because he didn’t want to give him the slightest excuse to hate him and track him down years after his release.
As for me, I’ve been in short-term mental institutions four times. Each stay has been between one and two weeks. Most patients just seem odd and don’t seem threatening. But the few that are very unpredictable make it a scary place.
The worst that happened to me was getting sucker punched in the arm really hard. No big deal, there. A nurse told me I could and should press charges, but I refused. That patient was obviously insane and I’ve been kicked harder when sparring.
But I remember one big guy (nicknamed Champ) who was scary. He would sometimes erupt into angry yelling fits with no provocation. He liked to shake hands, and then slowly start squeezing until people had to ingy bingy their hand away. I had a buzz cut and he liked to rub my head. He would slowly get more violent with the rubbing until I darted away.
The staff would stop him if they saw him doing something and he obeyed them. But they couldn’t be everywhere at once.
When I got released, I said my goodbyes and shook hands. In my exuberance, I also shook hands with Champ. His hand was limp. I looked in his glazed, dull brown eyes that seemed to stare right through me, and felt both sorrow for him and relief that I was leaving. I had stared into the eyes of a madman.
Of course, I suppose I could say the same about looking at my own reflection in a mirror. But there are vastly different levels of mental illness.”