How to Support a Friend or Loved One Staying in a Psychiatric Hospital

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A white man reclining in a hospital bed. Credit to flickr.com user JD Harvill. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Sometimes, people just need a little help. There may come a time in your life where a friend or loved one is committed to a mental hospital. When I suffered a postpartum breakdown after the birth of my first child, I committed myself. I was fortunate enough to have the support of a loving, devoted husband, who cared for our newborn and for me while I was struggling with a psychotic manic episode. If you have a friend or loved one spending time in a psychiatric ward, here are some tips on how to best support him or her. If you have a loved one staying in the mental hospital and have other people ready to support him or her but don’t know how, then feel free to print this article out and hand it to them.

The “DON’Ts” of Visiting a Friend or Loved One in a Mental Hospital

  1. Don’t show up unannounced. Make sure you call ahead of time before visiting your friend or loved one in a mental hospitlal. I am sure he or she would love visitors, but being hospitalized is exhausting, and sometimes your friend might not be up for a long visit, or even one at all that day. Also be sure to check when visiting hours actually are.
  2. Don’t be afraid. Mental hospitals may seem like scary places, and it might feel natural to be afraid while you’re there. Patients talk to themselves, are in pain, and are sometimes unpredictable. But your fear contributes to stigma. These patients are normal people who are struggling with mental and/or physical illnesses. The nurses can manage the patients, who are unlikely to be violent. Conquer your fear and don’t worry about visiting your loved one.
  3. Don’t act like you’re going to catch mental illnesses. When I was committed, a fellow patient introduced me to her family. They were very reluctant to shake hands with me, and leaned back from me, presumably so I wouldn’t breathe on them. Their behavior, where they acted as if I were contagious, was insulting and demeaning. You cannot catch crazy. Do not even act as if people in pain are contagious.
  4. Don’t pity the patients. Sympathy is good, empathy is even better, but pity is terrible for anyone suffering from a mental illness. Pity contributes to feelings of low self-worth and depression, and just feels bad. Try to empathize with your friend or loved one stuck in the hospital, but don’t pity or blame him or her for being there.
  5. Don’t abandon your friend as soon as the hospital stay is over. After the hospital stay has concluded, check in with your friend and see if there’s anything he or she needs, be it a cup of coffee or help cleaning the house. Just like a physical illness, mental illnesses take a long time to recover from, especially when a hospital stay is required. Your friend will need you more than ever when they leave the hospital. Continue being a good friend and supporting him or her.

The “DOs” of Visiting a Friend or Loved One in the Mental Hospital

  1. Do visit. One of the best ways to support a friend or loved one who is staying in a psych ward is to show up and be there for them. If you can leave your judgments at the door and offer a compassionate listening ear, you can help buoy him or her and even aid in his or her recovery. Visit as often as you can and the hospital allows.
  2. Do bring something to do or talk about. One of the surprising aspects of the hospital is how boring a stay can be. Patients have very little to do other than color and read old copies of Reader’s Digest, or whatever the hospital has on hand from prior donations. A person staying in the mental ward may face crushing boredom; do your best to alleviate that.
  3. Do write and call. If you can’t visit, dropping your loved one a note or calling him or her up will be very much appreciated. Knowing that people on the outside haven’t forgotten him or her is extremely helpful to a person staying in the psychiatric hospital.
  4. Do offer your loved ones the same respect you give them when they are well. The best way my husband was able to support me was to treat me as if I were the same person he’d always known, and play with me as if I weren’t in a hospital setting. Treat your loved ones with respect; even when psychotic, I was able to tell when other people were mistreating me.
  5. Do acknowledge your loved one’s pain. Validation is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal to relate to your loved one. Rather than responding with something like, “You’ll get over it,” or even “Hang in there,” to their depression, acknowledge that he or she is hurting. Even saying, “That sounds really difficult,” will put your loved one at ease.
  6. Do advocate for your friend or loved one. Ask the person you’re visiting whether they think their treatment team is treating them properly, and keep your eyes open for any problems. The likelihood of your loved one being abused is low, but he or she still might not be able or willing to speak up for himself or herself, even for something as simple as asking for an extra blanket or a clean set of sheets. Keep in mind that your loved one may not be the most reliable narrator; anger at the nurses is common in a mental ward, especially at the beginning of one’s stay, so your loved one might take the chance to rail against their “tormentors.” But don’t hesitate to bring up your loved one’s concerns with the nurses. If the mistreatment is real, you will need to advocate for your loved one and ensure he or she gets proper care.
  7. Do establish boundaries. If you are overwhelmed by your loved one’s negativity, change the subject. Try not to cut the visit short unless he or she becomes too agitated to speak or becomes violent, as some patients might think you’re abandoning them. But healthy boundaries are important when visiting a friend in the mental ward. Take care of yourself and make sure to do something relaxing for yourself as soon as the visit concludes.

Final Thoughts

There are several dos and don’ts when supporting a friend or loved one staying in a mental hospital. Having gone through the experience of committing myself, I can strongly suggest that you visit as often as you can and the patient allows, as that will aid in his or her recovery. The feeling of being forgotten while staying in a psych ward is very real, and is crippling. Try to be in tune with your friend’s needs, and don’t abandon them after the hospital stay is over.

I wish you well.

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Which Mental Health Professional Should You Use?

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Credit to flickr.com user Jonas Bengtsson. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Mental health professionals come in all types. When making the decision as to which doctor to start a treatment plan with, keep in mind that you can try several–as many as you can afford, that is. Your primary care physician can refer you to one or many of these mental health professionals.

 

Psychiatrist

A doctor trained in the medical field of psychiatry, including the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of mental and emotional illnesses. The most important job of a psychiatrist is to prescribe medication for you. Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists are medical doctors. You will likely be referred to a psychiatrist at least once in your mental healthcare journey.

Child/Adolescent Psychiatrist

Just like it says on the tin, a child/adolescent psychiatrist is a medical doctor specifically trained to treat mental illnesses or behavioral problems in children. These professionals can and will prescribe medication.

Psychologist

A psychologist is a mental health professional with a doctoral degree in psychology who can diagnose and treat mental illnesses with courses of therapy. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists do not prescribe medication. There are two forms of psychology: applied psychology, which includes “practitioners,” and research-oriented psychology, which includes “scientists.” Psychologists are trained as researchers and practitioners.

Clinical Social Worker

A clinical social worker is a counselor with a master’s degree in social work who provides individual and group counseling. The social workers have three years or more of supervised experience. They do not prescribe medication.

Licensed Professional Counselor

A licensed professional counselor (LPC) is a counselor with a master’s degree in psychology and several years of supervised experience who offers individual and group counseling. In the U.S., the title varies by state, but the most common next to LPC is licensed mental health counselor (LMHC). The counselors do not prescribe medication.

Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor

A certified alcohol and drug abuse counselor is a mental health professional with specific training in substance abuse treatment. The counselor can provide individual and group counseling. The counselor does not prescribe medication.

Marital and Family Therapist

Marital and family therapists are professionals specializing in relationships between families, or couples. The therapists emphasize familial relationships as important to consider for your mental health. The counselors have master’s degrees in psychology and related fields, and do not prescribe medication.

Several types of mental health professionals are available to help you. These are just a few of them. A lot of the counselors seem interchangeable, but they all have different approaches, tailored to you.

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How to Get a Psychiatric Evaluation

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Credit to flickr.com user Lisa Brewster. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Mental illnesses are common–roughly 1 in 5 American adults have one–but people with depression or bipolar disorder can sometimes take up to ten years before they seek out care for themselves. Are you ready to take the first steps towards getting a potential diagnosis? Read on to find out where to seek help.

 

Where to Find Help

  • Ask your primary care physician for a referral to a mental health professional. Other people who can refer you are crisis centers, or a local Mental Health America office. Ask for more than one doctor, so you can comparison shop.
  • To get an evaluation, try the psychiatry department of a university. Psychiatrists at a college will be up-to-date on cutting-edge research, and be more willing to stick with proven drugs such as lithium because they’re well-researched.
  • Contact your health insurance plan to find providers covered under your plan.
  • If you are a veteran, try the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, located online at www.va.gov/health. You can also call 1-877-222-8387. Veterans who already have benefits through the department can visit www.va.gov/directory to find a mental health professional covered under the VA’s plan.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is also a great place to check for mental health professionals. The department is located online at http://www.samhsa.gov/treatment. You can also call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
  • If you work for a large company, you may have an employee assistance program (EAP) available. Contact Human Resources to find a provider under the EAP.
  • What about Medicare and Medicaid? Check Medicare at www.medicare.gov. Mental health professionals who accept Medicaid might be listed by your state’s Medicaid office. Click on the name of your state at http://www.benefits.gov/benefits/browse-by-category/category/MED.

What to Expect

You will first talk to your referred mental health professional on the phone. Ask them about how they like to approach therapy and medication. Make an appointment if you feel comfortable with them during the phone interview.

At the appointment, your psychiatrist or psychologist should refer you to a lab to check your thyroid levels and rule out other physical causes of mental illness symptoms. Your doctor will ask you why you called him or her, what you think the problem is, and about your job and living situation. You may be given a few questionnaires to evaluate your mental health and any adverse symptoms. This testing can take hours.

Sometimes, a mental health professional may want to interview your family and friends. Your doctor cannot interview them without your consent. Consider asking your loved ones if they’d be willing to submit to an interview.

After that, be patient! Getting a diagnosis–and an accurate one, no less–takes time, but it’s an important part of developing a treatment plan, including therapy and/or medications.

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Bipolar Patients More Than Twice As Likely to Have Suffered Childhood Adversity

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Credit to flickr.com user Zach Korb. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

A new study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry looking at more than thirty years into bipolar disorder research found that people with the disorder are 2.63 times more likely to have suffered adversity as children than the general population.

Adversity is defined here as emotional, sexual, or physical abuse, or the loss of a parent before the age of nineteen. While the loss of a parent did not raise the risk of a bipolar diagnosis significantly, people who were emotionally abused were more than four times as likely to have a subsequent diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

The study, run by researchers at the University of Manchester, gathered data from millions of patient interviews in nineteen studies between 1980 and 2014. The authors of the study believed that bipolar disorder had a similar link to childhood adversity like schizophrenia, and does not just stem from bio-genetics.

The hope that the researchers have is that specialized therapy plans can be put into place for people who have suffered childhood abuse, and that future diagnoses can take into account personal histories.

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