Practical Wisdom: How to Visit Somebody at the Psychiatric Ward

Ask people about psychiatric wards, and they would likely answer Jack Nicholson’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” To most, wards are mysterious and threatening. That’s why I decided to share with you some tips on visiting the ward gathered from my firsthand experience. 

Bring food, lots of food

Choosing what we eat is a powerful manifestation of our will and self-determination. Food is one of our primary sources of pleasure, which is lacking in the ward. A fork in the mouth gives us a moment of self-care and empowerment. I can’t describe the awesomeness of the occasional brownie at the ward!

When Jo and Steve handed me the five humongous pastrami and turkey sandwiches from the kosher deli, my eyes bested with tears of joy. That night I threw a “Jewish diner party” for my roommates. Most of them had never eaten Kosher or seen such a pastrami mountain. What a moment of happiness! We were at a Michelin 5-star restaurant eating in our hospital beds. At that moment, I shifted from being a passive patient to somebody who could uplift others.

Bring their favorite food to those you love. And if the rules allow it, bring extra for others. Sponsor a party in the ward!  

Don’t ask “how is my son doing”

The mother entered the ward and rushed straight to the nurse. “How is my son doing,” she loudly inquired. I looked at her son’s face turning pale with embarrassment. Segregated from society, in the ward, we feel invisible. Talking about us as if we are not present, as a third entity, is to drive a dagger into our psyche. Trust us. Respect us. Affirm our existence. Unless we are in crisis, remember that we are intelligent, sensitive, and lucid enough to tell you how we feel. That trust is in itself an act of healing.

Keep your advice…at home

The fact that you are on the “outside” does not make you an expert on our condition. Your goal is to convey love and empathy. That love does not require an opinion. Just listen attentively and be there.

During my worst crisis, my friend Mark sat beside me for hours without saying much. He loved me through his unconditional presence. Instead of certainty, your well-intentioned uneducated opinion may generate stress and anxiety.  

Stay long enough

There are few feelings as unsettling as being a burden to our families. If your visit seems like fulfilling an obligation, it would be better to stay home. In addition, Jewish law recommends that we approach the person in an uplifting mood. We must leave our problems at the door. Short visits should occur when the patient is tired or in discomfort. Otherwise, a quick “hello and goodbye” will convey, “ok, I’ve done it, now let’s get out of here.”  

Most wards have pay phones available. Call outside of visiting hours. Make sure that the person knows you are thinking about him. I felt so joyous when I heard, “Alfredo, there is a phone call for you.” Don’t call during lunch or dinner hours.

What do You need?”

I challenge you to use the ward’s toiletries. The ones in hotels and airplanes are de lux compared to the mysterious brand toothpaste and toothbrush fitting for a barbie doll. Once, the nurse handed me a “communal bush” to comb my hair! Just imagine semi-functional individuals doing their laundry in semi-functional machines. Underwear gets lost in the twilight zone. Love expresses itself fully in the practical. Bring us our favorite socks, T-shirts, and books. ” Ask about our specific needs, such as “I’m going to the supermarket, is there anything you would like me to buy before your discharge?”.

Don’t be a News Anchor

Faced with an uncomfortable silence, visitors frequently become news anchors. “Let me tell you about the war in Ukraine.” “Inflation is terrible.” They believe in normalizing the patient by bringing the outside problems into the ward. During my last stay at the ward, we decided against watching CNN, Fox, or the local cable news. Instead, we savored watching Jeopardy, and the Price is Right. Realize that the more you bring the “outside” to us, the more trapped we feel. In our circumstances, we have the right to care whether we will have a tortuous sleepless night or if the psychiatrist will give us more than fifteen minutes of her time.

Be on Time

“I’m so excited. My daughter is coming at 5:00 PM!” Mirna announced. At 4:45, she was anxiously waiting by the door of the ward. Your visits are the most important event of our long boring day. We design the day around seeing you. Take all the precautions you can to be on time. That is in itself a great expression of compassion. If you know your schedule, tell the patient when you will be back. That gives us something exciting and positive to look for.

Be Genuine

Don’t act overly loving, motivating, or compassionate. Mentally ill people are attuned to others’ moods. We detect fakeness miles away.

Though well-intentioned, an exaggerated optimism makes us feel disrespected and disempowered. Act naturally. Be your best authentic self.  

 

Have a “Teflon” Spirit

Like a none stick Teflon pan, don’t let the mood of your loved one distress you. Remember that many of us are experiencing the effect of new medications. We feel scared and uncertain. We endure an endless set of constraining ward rules. Once, a nurse reprimanded me for “walking too fast.” Take us seriously but be patient, knowing that we may blame you: “You put me here against my will. You traumatize me as a child. You should be in jail!”

Please, give us the great gift of suspending judgment. Understand that we are angry and frightened, and you may be our only listener.

Advocate

In the ward, we feel powerless. Ask us if you would like us to speak with the social worker or psychiatrist on our behalf. Understand that your voice and opinion have a tremendous impact on our situation. The key to our discharge is a support system waiting for us. Let the professionals know of your commitment to our welfare. Be our advocate.

Uplift Other Patients

Though you are not obliged to dialogue with other patients, acknowledge their presence with a “good morning” or good afternoon.” Like your loved one, they also feel forgotten and invisible. I can’t describe the sense of worth and affirmation I experienced when strangers greeted me with a simple “hello.” Raise others’ self-esteem!

See Yourself a Healer

Reflect upon the impact of your visit. Your visit is as important as the best medication. Your love possesses profound healing powers. Make your visit a spiritual experience. The ancient rabbis teach that visiting the ill removes a sixtieth of the patient’s illness.

To Pray or not to pray?

Unless you know the person’s religious preferences and you share a common tradition, ask permission to pray. In general, unsolicited prayers are more about your faith and needs than comforting the one you are visiting. Unsolicited prayers may infringe on the patient’s already diminished self-determination.

When not to visit

Do not visit if you suspect that you could embarrass the person. If you have doubts, ask their close family for permission to visit. Do not just appear out of the blue with a “surprise!” That may trigger the awful feeling that the entire neighborhood knows we are in a psychiatric ward.

Be present. That’s the greatest gift!

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