Having a loved one hospitalized on a psychiatric unit can often be an emotionally bewildering experience, one in which it’s hard to know just how to help. Here are a few suggestions.
Note: Hospitals vary widely in terms of policies. When in doubt, call ahead or consult printed visitor information.
1. Bring delicious food when you visit.
No. seriously. This is my top tip with good reason. Hospital food is generally dreadful on all units, but psych patients frequently have less flexibility in terms of what and when they can eat (no “room service,” more regimented mealtimes).
Bring something flavorful to combat the menu’s bland tedium, or a favorite coffee order from the lobby cafe. Just remember — no glass or non-plastic cutlery, for safety reasons.
2. Provide games or other activities to help pass the time.
Menus aren’t the only tedium. Supplies of magazines, puzzles, and card games on units are often paltry and uninspiring, so a “care package” of engaging, non-triggery reading material and some easy pastimes will be much appreciated.
As an added bonus, fun activities serve as an excellent icebreaker or distraction from the potential awkwardness or emotional charge of a visit.
3. Assist with practical needs outside the hospital walls.
Does your loved one need help with childcare? Looking after pets? Paying of bills? These are all stressors that can make it difficult for a hospitalized person to focus on his or her recovery.
Basically, offer any support and assistance you would if the person had a physical illness that required inpatient care. This will go a long way towards normalizing and destigmatizing psychiatric distress, which benefits everyone.
4. Help with transition planning.
Discharge from the hospital can often feel sudden and abrupt. To lessen your loved one’s overwhelm, offer concrete supports like rides to follow-up appointments or prepared meals the first few days. Arranging these in advance, while your loved one is still inpatient, can be a real anxiety-minimizer.
Note that the person may not be able to articulate just what they might need, so suggest possible ideas, dates, and times (“Would you like me to drop off a meal on Wednesday?,” etc.)
5. Be prepared for a range of emotions and expressions.
Your loved one may be angry, particular if the hospitalization is an involuntary one. He or she may be sedated or agitated due to medication side effects, and find this embarrassing or frustrating.
You will no doubt have your own range of difficult emotions as well. But doing your best to cultivate a reassuring, non-judgmental stance will go a long way towards preserving your connection with your loved one.
If you have any suggestions you’d like to add, either from the perspective of a mental health consumer or a friend/family member, I’d love to hear them in the comments.
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