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I've Never Received a Gift in a Mental Hospital. Here's Why It Matters.

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When a person walks into a medical facility, hospital or otherwise, they often walk right past the gift shop. Sometimes, people walk right past the gift shop to ask someone else passing by, “Where can I find the gift shop?” Visitors to medical hospitals often head there on their way in to visit their loved one or friend.

I am writing today as someone who has been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities and has had multiple medical interventions, and been an inpatient in a medical facility. Even for the most minor medical procedures that have landed me in the hospital, I have been showered with cards, teddy bears, flowers even and the list goes on.

This phenomenon isn’t specific to my circumstances. People I’ve observed seem to be showered by their visitors with gifts from the lobby gift shop or their local pharmacy in a medical hospital. 

Even down to clothing or a unique item from their home, I have seen family members bring these possessions, too, into the hospital to further comfort their loved ones. 

Sadly, in the psychiatric hospital, this doesn’t happen — at least, not in my experience. The “gift shop” is usually locked away, or only open a few hours of the day. The shop is often located in some inaccessible and remote area of the facility that requires staff members to personally escort you to and from the store. Patients are usually not allowed to visit the shop themselves. 

In one psychiatric hospital of which I was of inpatient status, all of this started to connect bizarrely. I needed to attain a certain level of privilege determined by the clinical staff to access the shop with behavioral health guards or attendants to personally escort me to and from the shop.

One of the saddest and profound memories I have is from my stint at the state hospital in upstate New York. I was jealous a friend finally had a visit from a family member who brought her food from McDonald’s. 

I observed the friend sitting with their family, eating a Big Mac from McDonald’s. The jealousy was visceral; I felt it. I remember sitting and staring at her, eating the other half of the sandwich later after her family left at dinner time. 

A bit of background here: In the state hospital system, meals are calculated right down to the calorie. It is assumed because you are a “mental patient” you don’t know how to eat or what to eat, so the dietitians determine your meals for you. I tried to find a loophole, claiming allergies. These other lies might ameliorate my dining and land me a more consumable plate of food, but no luck. I have more documentation from dietary than my clinical staff.

When thinking about the dining room, one such patient, an elderly woman ready to be transferred to the geriatric ward, comes to mind. She was so upset with her food she did a running dash at someone else’s bowl of soup in the dining room. She then kept running, ultimately, to be tackled by the guards or technicians. I was never that bold. I engaged in something called trading. 

Trading is as simple as it sounds. Every meal, the food trays are passed around to all of us patients. Usually, the tray is placed firmly in front of each of us in the dining room. You take a glance first at your tray, then eyeball your tablemate’s. In doing so, you notice seemingly better food on your neighbor’s plate. At that point, quietly, you bargain for their food using an item you could do without. Unfortunately, all my tablemates ratted on me to the staff. This behavior left me in dining isolation at my own table for punishment when discovered by the treatment team.

So, when I say people with mental health conditions don’t get flowers, it speaks to a larger problem with how this group of people is viewed by their healthy counterparts. Our friends and family seem to underdetermine if, in fact, we in psychiatric hospitals deserve some additional empathy, a gift card or a sandwich from our favorite shops.

Getty image by eggeeggjiew

Originally published: January 17, 2021
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