These are places where patients put their lives back together, picking up the pieces torn apart by such illnesses as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Caregivers from doctors and nurses, to social workers and psychologists work to heal the sick, to guide patients out of the abyss. Families often reconcile with loved ones. Patients may find hope in one another, opening up in groups, sharing meals, discovering the comfort of shared experiences.

Despite public beliefs that we’re locking people away, many — if not most — patients sign into the hospital voluntarily, and inpatient stays usually last just days to a few weeks. There are long conversations about whether to take medications. Some meetings are filled with tears, some with laughter. Patients undergo physical exams and vital-signs checks, lab work and EKGs, just like anywhere else in the hospital.

I’ve seen patients dance with nurses, smiling for the first time in weeks. Patients playing musical instruments lift the spirits of those around them. Poetry fills those walls. Some patients create artwork that belongs in museums.