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The Do’s and Don’ts When Visiting Someone in a Psychiatric Hospital

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My last blog post, “My Manic Summer Take Two”, was written while I was in a psychiatric hospital for psychotic mania. Well, nothing much has changed as I am still hospitalised for that episode and am writing from hospital. 

To be clear, I am not writing this while I am floridly psychotic, which would be impossible (I’m sure most with bipolar I would agree). Rather, I am writing while I’m recovering from that episode. This means I’m no longer psychotic or severely manic. I’m still in hospital because I’m a little elevated, we’re in the process of changing back onto my old medication regime, my sleep cycle needs work and there’s the risk of ‘manic misadventure.’ We’re ‘fine-tuning’ everything so I have a successful and long recovery/remission out in the community. 

During my past hospitalisations, I’ve identified some ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ when it comes to visiting (or not visiting) loved ones in hospital and I’ve put them together in a rough guide. As everyone is different, I would like to point out that this is how I like to be treated and it’s always important to gauge the patient’s individual situation when visiting them. 

DON’TS 

1. DON’T show up unannounced. Like with physical illnesses it can be tiring having visitors. Particularly if you’re depressed and just need time to yourself. 

BUT… 

2. DON’T make yourself scarce. Don’t be afraid to message or ring the patient if you can’t get to the hospital. Send cards or flowers to let them know you’re thinking of them. 

Psychiatric hospitals can be intimating and visiting someone in a psychiatric hospital can be confronting, but this is not an excuse not to visit (besides psychiatric hospital aren’t scary, they’re just normal hospitals with normal patients). During my first manic episode two of my good friends hardly visited for 2 months, which really hurt. Hospital can be lonely and boring so getting visitors is always the highlight of the day. (I would like to point out that those two friends have been fabulous during this manic episode). 

3. DON’T pity the patient. I don’t want pity. I want empathy and at times I want sympathy, but I don’t want anyone to pity me. Pity can feed the ruminating spiral of depressive negativity and puts a wet blanket on resilience. Yes, having bipolar can be difficult at times, but it is manageable and I normally live a rich and fulfilling life. So please, no pity parties.  

4. DON’T act like the patient is a different person or what they have is contagious. This is very insulting.

5. DON’T blame the person for being in hospital. No one wants to be so unwell that they have to be in hospital. It’s no one’s fault, but the guilt of this can still be crushing.

DO’S 

1. DO visit when you can; but always ask the patient if they’re up for it. Visitors are a source of support and they break up the monotony of the daily hospital routine. I love getting visitors. 

2. DO send flowers and cards. Not only is it a nice gesture and brightens the room, but is normalises the experience of being in hospital as a psychiatric patient (which in this day and age there should be no divide between how psychiatric and physical patients are treated, but that’s a whole other blog topic). 

3. DO ask if they need anything while in hospital like magazines, a favourite snack or if a simple job needs to be done around the house. Continue that care when they are initially out of hospital like you would for someone with a broken leg. It’s hard getting back on your feet and into your regular routine once you’ve been discharged so a little extra help is often needed. You don’t need to spend all of your time caring for the person, but little thoughtful gestures go a long way. 

4. DO bring fun activities into hospital. As I said, hospital can be pretty boring. I don’t know how many hours I whittled away playing monopoly or cards with friends, or just colouring on my own. These help to pass the time. Of course, some patients may not be up to playing games, it just depends on the patient’s current situation. 

5. DO validate! Never underestimate the power of validation. If someone is depressed instead of responding with pity or an upbeat (and often corny) saying, say: “that sounds really tough” or something similar. If someone is psychotic, then their psychosis is just as real to them, as to whatever is going on in your life. Don’t dismiss it because chances are that person is going to become confused, angry and hostile towards you. Listen to them and take what they have to say seriously.  

6. DO treat the person the same as you would when they’re well. Your loved one is still in there and no matter how unwell they are, they will know if you’re treating them differently. When I’m psychotic, although I lose touch with reality, I still retain my intelligence and empathy and I can tell if people are treating me differently. If they are it makes you feel misunderstood, isolated, paranoid and alone. 

7. DO acknowledge that we’re unwell, stay in touch and offer to help out. The biggest detriment to us when we’re unwell is silence - that we’re treated like taboo because we have a mental illness so we are left alone. Silence adds to stigma and prevents people seeking early treatment or none at all. Ask how we’re feeling like how you would ask someone who has pneumonia how they’re feeling. Ask genuine and honest questions with interest. Sometimes questions are all that’s needed for us to open up. Again, just simply talking about mental illness normalises it. We don’t want our condition to be swept under the rug it when it flares up. We want to talk about it with the people we trust. 

And Finally… 

8. DO treat mental illness the same as psychical illness! After all mental illness is a physical illness – it just occurs in the brain. If you treat the patient with compassion, unwavering love and support, humour (again, gauge the situation), and show genuine, non-judgmental interest in what they’re experiencing then they will feel supported and loved. And in the end, that’s what we all want when we’re unwell.  

(Note: the picture is of me in my hospital room during my last current hospitalisation.)

Sally also blogs for bp Magazine and has written for Youth Todayupstart and The Change Blog. To read more of her IBPF posts, click here.

Comments

I don't tolerate lithium, so I've been in hospital twice for 60 days. It takes longer to get me balanced out. And now that I have Tardive Dyskinesia (luckily symptoms managed) and am treated for ADHD/Binge Eating Disorder, my med regime is sort of complicated...tight, so to speak. I have managed to stay out of hospital for let's see, 16 years, but there were a few close calls. Part of the reason I stay out is that the psychiatric I trust the most, the one I met the last time I was manic and involuntarily hospitalized, he no longer does hospital work. I had three 'second opinions' last year and they all rejected me when it became apparent that I hadn't made my decision overnight. I wanted to get to know the men who were 'head of psychiatry' at the local hospitals in case I have to go in. I'm not impressed but this could be specific to Florida, the United States or my particular situation. I hope you get the care you need and you sound quite lucid. I'm surprise you are able to write from there. But then again, I applied for a job from a hospital and got it. Good luck, Sally.

Thank you ! I'm going to pass this on to family. We've had a lot of pain and misunderstanding from family members that behaved inappropriately when visiting my daughter in hospital. I doubt they meant to be problematic , but boy did they do and say a lot of hurtful things. It set my daughter back sometimes so we sadly had to ask them not to visit.

Ask the patient if they are getting proper care, that the hospital is safe, melds are given and any problems are taken care of. They will have no right to protect themselves or to advocate if something is wrong. I know from experiene. When I got out was when I had to report the dangers, not getting mess, being attracted by another patient, and the patient attracked others and nothing was done.

Such important points you have made! The patient needs to be advocated for, especially when I'm the psych ward! The patients don't have any rights in there and often are not listened to! The Family and the Friends speaking up for their loved one makes a big difference and is very appreciated! It aids in recovery also!

You should question whether or not the hospital allows certain items before you bring them. Our facility does not allow patients to keep flowers or snacks in their rooms.

I've never had a friend visit me when I was in the hospital, or a member of my church for that matter. It is sad, but I know that the stigma keeps a lot of people away. Thank you for expressing the importance of support of friends.

My son has been hospitalized for over 15 years and he is well taken care of.
The hospital is just like the hospitals i have frequented without the IV's etc
I have gone to visit and had my son say he doesn't feel up to my visit. I will call from now on and check in just before i leave my home. I suggest, no one takes it personally.

I went to my sons reunion at the request of his friends to say a few words during the cocktail hour. I told those friends that my son thanks them for the food donations that my son and i do for LI Cares, and then i said Neil wanted me to say that he is ok, that he doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for him, and that if anyone hasn't accomplished their goals yet, don't worry, there is still a lot of time. That sounds like good advice from my son.

I had three months last year where i could take Neil out for the day, and we played golf and went to the beach. He seemed terrific and then he fell back.
It was so depressing to see a Beautiful Mind 3 months, revert back to his present status. We, the Care Takers need compassion also, but never blame your loved ones.They don't need that.

I really liked reading your article.

We set up neilswheelsny.com to raise food on LI in my sin's honor and to destigmatize mental illness.

Thank you - everything I want to say but haven't the courage to say to my own close ones. Or can't get my thoughts together well enough at the time.
I have to say one of the hardest for me is the person who comes to visit you and is so awkward, sits there and 'visits' neither of you know what to say, to do... oh I hate those visits and I'd rather just see those people when I'm out of hospital!
I hope this finds you a lot better than when you wrote this.

My big point is don't say you'll be there at a certain time, and then be late or not show up at all. Hospitals can be very lonely, so if you say you're coming, I'm watching the door for you. And an hour later, when you're not there, and I can't reach you on your cell, I'm telling myself I wasn't worthy of your visiting. And when there is half an hour left of visiting hours, and you finally show, I feel like I'm supposed to be excited to see you, and that if I say I'm disappointed in how late you are, that I'm just too critical. So please, keep your word and show up, on time. I need you.

Very insightful, original and thought provoking. This sure needs a very wide circulation to educate not only friends and loved ones but also the very professionals that work with mental health patients both whilst on hospital admission and on their discharge back into the community. Thanks a million.

Very good insights. My daughter is in her third week in the hospital as I write this, and has been refusing phone calls and visitors (we don't know why, she has done this before when hospitalized). Thank you for sharing, and I hope you are feeling well now and are out of the hospital. Best wishes for you in your recovery.

Girlfriend been admitted. Her family believes it is vital i do not visit, for believing i am the one who put her in that situation. I tried to go hospital, yet nurses also think it is the family right to not allow me visit. i wish i could do something because i really love her. any advice for supporting her.

Thank you for this, a friend was admitted last week and this is helpful to confirm I'm doing the right things and other things I can also do. I find it really hard as I don't ever want to say the wrong thing or that they don't want me to visit but It's good to read from someone who has been in the situation.

Thanks for this. Messages from my partner saying he'd run out of money made me feel so guilty when in hospital, like what was I doing wallowing there, it was out of my control as I was sectioned. He then refused to take my phone calls after telling me I was a twisted bully. When I came out of hospital I didn't know if I'd have a home to come too. Luckily I had so much love and support shown to me through friends and family reassuring me I was a lovely person.

I have a brother that's in a psychiatric hospital. His step mom volunteered to put him there. Our mother wasn't told until 3 days later. He called us today crying and upset about wanting to come home. His step mother told me that we aren't allowed to see him unless he says, he's 18 shouldn't we be able to call and see him whenever we want because he's an adult? I'm confused about this whole situation and I need some help.

I agree with you Sally. I'm 18yr and have a 21yr sister whos schizophrenic and has her own reality outside of reality. Its extremely difficult for me to understand at times and I get frustrated but with dealing with someone whos mentally ill you have and I mean Have to be understanding to a point. Put yourself in their shoes, how would you feel in their position? All they need is support and someone whos there. Let them talk crazy dont shame on them or talk shit to them. Mentally ill people are ill but they're still people. I can say this because I know. Waking up one day when your 13/14 years old to see who you grew up with used to play with, talked about everything together, your bestfriend/sibling, who just some how went from normal to what the hell happened, are you ok? Losing my sister to that disease was the hardest an horiblest thing I've ever experienced/experiencing. Anyways for years I treated her like a imbecile that she's just faking it, embarrassed of her every move an word. I was a distasteful person and wish I can take back all the things ive said to her but can't. She's 21 years old and a beautiful person who deserves so much better in life but is degrading away in a hospital. You have to make them feel loved and wanted cause whatever is going on inside their head is true horror, try your absolute best to make them smile and laugh its the least you could for them but also means so much..

Dont insult or put the person in doubts as it will lead the person into self pity and doubts. Also while talking with the person speak well, take care of his fundamental and human rights.

This info will be my guide to helping my woman get well I pray, Good luck and Many Thanks.

Thank you very much for your candidates advice. I have a very dear friend who has recently had a relapse. I had no idea whether sending cards and flowers were even an option. Of course, I will send her flowers and a card. She needs to know that although I may not be able to visit her, that I truly care and hope to see her soon....
Again, thanks a bunch.

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