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10 Ways to Support a Loved One in a Psychiatric Hospital

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Sitting in a circle of weathered brown chairs in a psychiatric hospital, I looked around at the other patients, mothers, daughters, nurses, artists and survivors. It was a diverse group of women, each fighting her own battle toward healing and recovery. I had been a resident for several days. While I still struggled to adjust to life behind locked doors, I saw the new people enter, shaking, fear dripping from their tired eyes, so I forced a smile, introduced myself and let them know I’ve been there and it will be OK.

I have been hospitalized several times to varying degrees due to my challenges with depression, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. It’s not easy to be suddenly thrust into a hospital setting. Movies and the media have led us to believe this is a terrible thing and should be avoided at all costs. People often envision scenes from movies like, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” with padded rooms and straitjackets. Movies like these portray psychiatric hospitals as scary places, reserved for those who are damaged, unfixable and extremely violent. When in fact, these portrayals are far from the truth. This treatment can be exactly what we need to heal or at least start us on a healing path.

A hospital setting can provide a safe, controlled environment for treatment or monitoring. If someone needs medication adjustments, for example, then being in a hospital can allow doctors to make sure the medications are doing their job. They can more efficiently address any side effects.

Being hospitalized is difficult for us as patients, but it can also be difficult for our friends and family. Those who love us are often unsure of what to do and how to help. The negative stigma associated with mental hospitals and psych wards can cause them to act in a different way than they would if their loved one was in a “regular” hospital. It can be a confusing time for everyone.

Here are some easy ways to support a loved one who is receiving treatment:

Use encouraging language.

First and foremost, make sure your loved one knows you are there for her no matter what, even if she tries to push you away. Be careful of your language and tone. You want your loved one to feel heard and understood, and not pitied or condescended. Try to steer clear of phrases like, “You’ll be fine,” “Snap out of it,” “It’s not a big deal,” “Chin up,” and the ever-popular, “Be positive.” Instead, let them know you hear them, their feelings are real and you care about them always. Perhaps the most important phrase of all is, “You’re not alone.” A psychiatric hospital can feel like a lonely place, even if there are a lot of people around.

2. Make them laugh.

Don’t act like her illness is contagious or like she’s behind some sort of isolation bubble. She’s still the same person. That behavior can make someone feel worse or more misunderstood and alone. Treat it like a regular hospital visit if someone had a broken arm. You don’t need to talk about the broken arm the whole time. Talk about the silly things you would normally talk about. Talk about pop culture or a funny story or joke you heard. One of the best things you can do is make someone laugh or smile.

3. Know your visiting options.

Be there, literally. Visit or arrange a time to video chat if permitted, but recognize she might not want visitors some days. She might not even want to talk. Respect her wishes. Treatment can be tiring. Let her know you would like to visit whenever it works for her, and she doesn’t need to put on a happy face or make any extra effort. You want to be with her as she is. Some people can feel embarrassed for others to see them in a hospital setting because of the stigma. Make sure she knows you will not judge her or think less of her.

4. Get creative.

Create something for her. Make a music mix, a collage using personal pictures and inspirational words, or learn a song to play for her. Even a handwritten card or letter can feel special and personal. You can also opt to make a project together when you visit. This can actually be therapeutic for her and for you. Bring art supplies (minus scissors) and magazines to read. Then, rip them up and use them  to make a paper collage. You can also bring jewelry making supplies, such as stretchy string and beads. Adult coloring books can be fun and cathartic too. There are mandala coloring books, inspirational ones, nature, animals, or even humorous ones in which you can color curse words. There are coloring books for every personality type.

5. Play games.

Bring a card game or board game to play with her if she’s up to it. Then, let her to hang onto it. She might be able to meet other people that way. Interactive games such as Pictionary, Charades, Apples to Apples and Mad Libs are fun and can break the ice with other patients.

6. Bring them comfort items.

Something soft and comfortable can feel really nice, just ask Linus from Snoopy. You can opt for a lovely shawl, which she can wrap around herself to feel more secure, or a throw blanket. Those items can also make a sterile, white bed look a little “homier.” Pillows and stuffed animals can do this as well and be nice to hug when she is feeling sad or lonely. My favorite is the Anxiety Blob from Sweatpants and Coffee. I can’t hug my family, but I can hug my Anxiety Blob every day.

7. Bring them clothes.

Clothing is an option, if you follow the rules. You definitely don’t want to include anything with belts or clothing with drawstrings. You might think cute PJs or a hoodie would be perfect, but if they have drawstrings, then they will likely get taken away. Comfortable clothing like yoga pants and layering tops are good options, or cozy socks and slippers.

8. Use sensory items.

Sensory items can help ground people in the current moment, which can be especially challenging at a hospital. If you bring something to stimulate her senses it can help with grounding. You can bring herbal teas, which are warm and appealing to smell. You can also bring a nice smelling lotion or oil, especially one with a calming element such as lavender. You can bring something squishy for her to squeeze and manipulate in her hands, like a squish ball, clay or model magic, which won’t make her hands messy and may even be permitted in groups.

You can bring something smooth that she can hold, rub or put in her pocket, like a small smooth stone. You can even write an inspiring word or phrase on it, like “hope,” “believe” or “You’ve got this.” Inspiring jewelry or meditation beads are nice because she can wear them, hold them or pocket them. You could even include a guided meditation or mantra. If food is allowed, then a yummy treat may hit the spot. Some hospitals have strict rules because of eating disorders, but if permitted, a favorite food or snack can be a nice refreshment.

9. Ask questions.

Most important of all, ask what you can do to best support her. Ask open-ended questions, such as, “How can I support you? What can I do to help?” Otherwise, there’s a good chance you will end up with all “yes” or “no” answers. Ask these questions not just once, but throughout the experience, as her needs, likes and dislikes may change. It helps to be specific and suggest things you can do, since depressed brains can work a bit slower at times. “Can I help with laundry or housework? Can I walk your dog?”

You can also ask questions to the nurses and care providers at the hospital. Your loved one will likely have a caseworker and psychiatrist who will head their team. They can only speak to you about the specifics of treatment if the patient has signed a waiver, but you can still get information about supporting your loved one. Many hospitals have packets of information geared toward family and friends. Some will even have support groups.

10. Be forgiving.

A person in a psychiatric facility is going through something extremely challenging, or she would not be there. She may not be receptive to your attempts to connect. She may seem out of it, cold or downright nasty. This is about her and her process, not you. Accept her as she is in that moment, even if it’s hard for you. Even if she yells at you or pushes a well-intentioned gift back into your face. Forgive her, and forgive yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong.

Keep supporting her and loving her anyway, unconditionally. As she heals, she will hopefully become more receptive and appreciate your efforts, but remember giving while someone is being hospitalized is about love and caring during hard times. It’s not about receiving, as much as you might want credit for your awesome act of creativity or sharing.

Every person is different. Her likes and dislikes are different. Her needs are different. Be sensitive, and don’t give up on her, even if she is not responsive at times. Be patient. Also, be patient when she is released. It is a big adjustment going in, but it can also be a big adjustment getting out and getting back to “real life.”

All of the tools in this article can be helpful for when a patient comes home as well. The world can seem like a loud, overwhelming place after you have been in a quiet space for an extended period of time. Don’t push her to do more than she is ready to do. Let her take things at her own pace.

Lastly, pat yourself on the back. Supporting someone with mental illness can be challenging at times. What you are doing is an amazing gift to your loved one, even if she doesn’t appreciate it in the moment. Helping someone in treatment, even if it is just helping her feel heard or making her laugh, is important. You can affect the trajectory of her day and, ultimately, her healing process. So keep it up, and don’t give up!

*Please note: These are just guidelines and tools to help communication with a loved one in a hospital. Every person and hospital is different, so please take these suggestions. Adjust them to your situation. Make sure to check with the hospital before sending or bringing gifts. To understand more of what your loved one and other people with mental illness experience through their own photography and words, please visit the nonprofit I founded, Broken Light Collective.

Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: August 19, 2016
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