What to Expect on an Adult Mental Health Inpatient Unit

Mohammed (Ashi) Azam, MD, is a board certified psychiatrist. He serves as the System Section Chief of Adult Inpatient Psychiatry for Inova Behavioral Health Services.

Although they can be just as devastating, mental health challenges have long taken a backseat to physical illnesses. This often-invisible suffering, and the stigma surrounding it, cause many people to choose not to seek care for mental health concerns. Mental illness is more common than you might think: one in five American experience mental illness each year and one in twenty experience serious mental illness. Yet more than half of U.S. adults with mental illness did not receive treatment within a given year.

One thing that makes people reluctant to seek care for mental health challenges is a lack of understanding about what to expect during a short-term stay at an inpatient psychiatric unit. Don’t believe what you see in the movies: a short-term hospitalization in an acute care mental health adult inpatient unit such as those at Inova Fairfax Hospital, Inova Loudoun Hospital or Inova Mount Vernon Hospital can enable a person experiencing a breakdown to begin recovery, moving away from the edge of the cliff and taking steps toward returning to a flourishing life.

What is a mental health inpatient unit like?

A hospital mental health unit is designed differently than a standard medical unit is. It is built for safety and to create a therapeutic environment.

Safety is the first priority in an adult mental health unit. Because it is a restricted setting, the care team can monitor patients around the clock to ensure their safety if they are depressed or possibly suicidal. There are also safety-related restrictions on what patients can bring to the unit. For example, belts, shoelaces and cell phones aren’t allowed on the unit. These rules allow us to create and maintain an environment that is as therapeutic as possible.

Unlike rooms on a medical unit, rooms in the hospital’s mental health unit are designed to encourage patients to come out of their rooms to engage with peers and interact with care providers as much as possible. For example, there are no televisions in the rooms, as there would be on a medical unit. These rooms may appear Spartan, but they are carefully designed to create a sense of quiet for calm and sleep.

What happens during a stay on the unit?

The first step is a detailed assessment. The patient meets with nursing, case management and the provider team to share their history and reason for hospitalization. The patient’s family is typically included to help inform the assessment and with the patient’s permission, routinely contacted on the first day of the patient’s stay on the unit. Planning for the patient’s release home begins on day one, in coordination with the patient, the patient’s family, and outpatient providers.

Each day, patients participate in robust therapeutic programming, including psycho-therapeutic groups and recreational therapy groups. Patients will meet with their nurse throughout the day. Patients also meet with a provider who leads the treatment team. Working together with the patient, the provider creates a personalized treatment plan that includes medications as well as other therapeutic interventions.

Helpful tips before you arrive

  • Write down phone numbers that you’ll need during your stay, because you won’t have access to your cell phone.
  • If you have time to pack before arriving, bring pants that don’t need belts and slip-on shoes.
  • Bring a book or two for downtime hours on the unit after meals and therapeutic sessions.

From top to bottom, the inpatient psychiatric units at Inova are designed to help patients stay safe, stabilize, and take the first steps toward recovery from a mental health crisis. Our multidisciplinary team stands ready to help individuals return to the full, joyful and healthy life they deserve.


If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health breakdown, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room. Learn more about Inova Behavioral Health Services or about our Inova adult mental health inpatient services specifically.

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