How to Support Someone During a Psychiatric Hospitalization

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

I’ve worked for many years with patients and their families in psychiatric hospitals 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 able to call you right away. Or your loved one may not have given permission for you to be contacted about their status.

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 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 know you are aware that your loved one is a patient. At this point, when you talk with the hospital staff, here are a few points to discuss about sharing treatment information:

  1. 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.
  2. Whether or not the release form is signed, a critical point to remember is that you can still freely provide information to the hospital about your loved one. As already noted, without permission from your loved one, the staff can’t reveal treatment information to you. But they are permitted to receive important treatment-related information from you after it is confirmed that you know your loved one is in the hospital. The background information you provide 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.
  3. It’s also 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.

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 fully disclose this information.

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

  1. 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?
  2. What types of treatment have been provided (medication, therapy, etc.) in the hospital and how effective have they been?
  3. What recommendations for further outpatient care in the community are being made?
  4. 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?
  5. What other resources for further education and support (financial, employment, housing, etc.) are suggested?
  6. 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.

Here’s a question: What other challenges have you faced related to the hospitalization of a loved one? Please leave a comment. Also please consider subscribing to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!

  • Jim Buchanan

    Good info!

  • DavidSusman

    Thanks Jim!

  • Kitt O’Malley

    Great post, David. Thanks!

  • Awesome post – bravo!

  • Shannon Love

    This is so helpful. I wish my husband could have read it before my first hospitalization.

    As someone who has been the patient a couple of times, I’d like folks to know that sometimes we don’t sign the release form because of our state of mind. My psychosis was so severe the first time I was hospitalized that I was too paranoid to trust anyone with my information, including my mom and my husband. It was not reflective of their character or my relationship with them outside of my psychotic state. However, I’m sure that they must have felt hurt and frustrated by the situation.

  • Thank you Shannon. I’ve seen so many families struggle during this difficult time. I’m hopeful we can provide more support and education for them to ease some of the challenges.

  • Jim Buchanan

    Saw a link to this on Facebook, it’s good enough that I’m sharing on Twitter a second time!

  • MentalIllnessPolicy

    You should point out that hospitals are allowed to receive info from family even if they can’t disclose info to families. HIPAA does not preclude this

  • Yes, great point, and I did include that in my post. Thanks!

  • Thanks Jim!

  • Jim Buchanan

    No problem. This is especially important to me now, a day after I retweeted that, as my wife has my daughter at the ER being evaluated for a possible inpatient stay. Let’s hope that the people there make a good decision, whichever way they go…

  • Carrie E

    This is not true. I am a mental health provider. If the patient did not sign a release of information form, the hospital cannot confirm or deny that the person is even their patient.

  • Hi Carrie. Your point is correct. However, I’ve run into many occasions where the family knows the patient is in the hospital and they will call and provide information to the hospital staff about the patient even though the hospital can’t formally confirm or deny they are treating the patient. Thanks for your feedback.

  • Carrie E

    If the hospital is functioning in a legal, ethical manner, then they need to tell anybody calling that they cannot confirm or deny the individual is a patient and politely end the call. It does not matter if the family knows the patient is in the hospital; without a release, the hospital still legally cannot acknowledge the presence of the patient. By accepting information from the family, they are acknowledging that the person is a patient. The patient would have basis to sue if they wished, for a HIPAA violation.

  • Again, I totally agree. Good insights!

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