Thursday, February 05, 2004
In a Mental Institute, the Call of the Outside:

"Dr. C. brought up a new topic, one I had never encountered in my 20 years as a psychiatrist.

'A power problem?' I echoed. Was this some sort of psychological shorthand, perhaps, or a reference to hospital politics?

'Yes,' said Dr. C. 'There aren't enough sockets up at the nursing station to plug in everyone's chargers.'

'Chargers for what?' I asked, even more confused.

'For batteries. For the patients' cellphones and computers,' Dr. C. said. 'It's a real problem for the nurses. After they charge up, the patients go into their rooms to talk, but they can only stay there until their batteries run out, and they're always rushing up to the nurses' station to recharge.'

When I had last worked on an inpatient psychiatric unit, in the early 1980's, such devices were in the realm of science fiction. In the interim, I had toiled in outpatient settings. So it had been a bit of an adjustment to get settled into my new job at the institute, where I was overseeing three patient units, a total of about 60 beds. Every week there was something new.

'I didn't even know that we let patients have cellphones here,' I said.

'Only on the general research unit,' Dr. C. said. 'Our patients aren't in as much of a crisis as the patients on the other floors, and some of them stay for several months. They want to stay in touch. Cellphones and laptops — well, they're just used to having them."

"Why can't they just plug them in?"

"Because they could use the cords to hang themselves."

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