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How to Support Someone During a Psychiatric Hospitalization

Practical tips to help your loved one.

If someone you care about has just been hospitalized related to a mental health condition, you may find the situation confusing and overwhelming, and you may feel you aren’t well-equipped to handle it. This can be even more stressful if it’s the first time you’ve faced this challenge.

As a clinical psychologist, I worked for many years with patients and their families in psychiatric hospital units and I’ve found several tips and strategies that can make this difficult time perhaps just a little bit more manageable. Let’s review a few of these.

Contacting the hospital team

Soon after your loved one is admitted, call the hospital by phone to get more information. (Email communication is usually discouraged as it’s not confidential.)

While it’s possible the hospital may call you first, don’t assume this will always happen. The staff may not necessarily have your contact information or they can sometimes be very busy and not be able to call you right away. Or your loved one may not have given permission for you to be contacted about their status.

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When you do get in touch with the hospital, ask these basic questions first:

Who are the key staff involved in my loved one’s care? The team may include a prescriber (either a physician or a nurse practitioner), a social worker, a nurse, a psychologist, a treatment coordinator and other care providers. Get their names and the name and phone number of the primary contact person on the team.

What are the hospital’s rules and policies? Common questions may include visiting hours, access to outside food, money, and clothing, prohibited items, telephone and mail policies, and billing and insurance issues.

What is my loved one’s legal status? Sometimes individuals may be initially admitted for a court-ordered evaluation, while others can admit themselves voluntarily to the hospital. The different types of admission can have important implications for how long the person may stay in the hospital. Also find out if it may be necessary for you to appear in court on behalf of your loved one, if a hearing is planned regarding the option for further involuntary treatment.

Sharing information with the hospital

Unless your loved one is your child (under age 18) or an adult for whom you are their legal guardian, you won’t be able to receive information about them without their written permission. This is because of numerous laws and regulations that are in place to protect the privacy and security of individuals’ health care information.

Because of these privacy rules, hospital staff may initially say they cannot confirm or deny that your loved one is a patient when you call the hospital. However, if you were involved in having your loved one admitted and/or you have visited them in the hospital, then the staff will likely know you are aware that your loved one is a patient. When you talk with the hospital staff, here are a few points to discuss about sharing treatment information:

  • Find out if your loved one is able and willing to sign a “release of information” form so you can be informed by the staff about their condition and treatment. Once this document is signed, the hospital staff can then provide you with status updates about your friend or family member. If your loved one won’t grant this release, the staff will not be able to tell you how they are doing or about their treatment.
  • Whether or not the release form is signed, a critical point to remember is that you can still offer to provide information to the hospital about your loved one. As already noted, without permission from your loved one, the staff can’t reveal any information to you. But they will usually be willing to receive important treatment-related information from you. The background information you disclose may include treatment history, recent symptoms, current or past medications, and past treatment providers and their findings. Providing this information can be incredibly helpful, since the hospital team may not have immediate access to the material otherwise.

Visiting your loved one

It’s vital to respect your loved one’s preferences for how much they want you to be involved in their care while they are in the hospital. Even if they don’t want the hospital team sharing treatment information with you, remain present and interested and keep reaching out to give the clear message you are there to support them. Unless they object, visit them regularly while they are in the hospital. Showing your care and concern directly through these visits can make a world of difference.

Planning for care after leaving the hospital

Since many hospital stays are brief, it’s important to stay in contact with the hospital team as care is provided and plans for discharge are developed.

It’s often helpful to ask for a meeting (face-to-face or by phone) prior to discharge to review the course of hospital treatment and the proposed plans for ongoing treatment in the community. As mentioned before, the hospital will need your loved one’s permission to disclose this information.

Here are some points to cover related to discharge from the hospital:

  • What is the team’s opinion about your loved one’s diagnosis and what are the symptoms associated with this diagnosis? What is the long-term outlook for this condition?
  • What types of treatment have been provided (medication, therapy, etc.) in the hospital and how effective have they been?
  • What recommendations for further outpatient care in the community are being made?
  • What specific treatment providers for outpatient care (medication, counseling, family and peer supports) are available and recommended? Will the hospital schedule the first appointment with these providers?
  • What other resources for further education and support (financial, employment, housing, etc.) are suggested?
  • What is the mechanism for re-admission if the need for hospitalization arises again? Who should be called in the case of an emerging crisis?

Hopefully these tips and strategies can give you a roadmap to help you navigate through the difficult time of a loved one’s hospitalization.

More from David Susman, Ph.D.
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