Acute psychiatric inpatient care forms an integral part of mental health services. Few studies have focussed on the patient experience of acute care. Research into patient experience is increasingly important to policy and service development processes. Knowledge of patient experiences facilitates the development of nursing practice. The aim of the study was to gain insight into the experience of being a patient on an acute inpatient psychiatric ward. Thirteen participants were recruited from the acute ward. Unstructured interviews were used to gather narrative data of their experiences. Holistic analysis of the narratives was informed by Gee's socio-linguistic theories that meaning is linked to narrative structure. Reading of the holistic analyses yielded themes of help, safety and power running across the participants' experiences. The patient experience was characterized by dissonance between expectation and experience, the search for a nurse–patient relationship and the development of strategies to cope with being on the acute ward. This paper focuses on the theme of ‘Help’ where participants describe their expectation that they will receive help through the development of relationships with the nurses, and their experience of the barriers to this. In response, participants developed strategies to support each other.