How to support a friend who has been admitted to psychiatric hospital

In the first quarter of 2017 (January-March), there were just under 18,500 psychiatric beds available across England for people in crisis or needing long-term support for their mental illness. This is despite the fact that in every year, 1 in 4 (or over 16 million adults and children) struggle with poor mental health. This means that for every mental health bed across the UK there are roughly 865 people suffering from a mental health condition.

Of course, not every one struggling with a mental health issue needs to be hospitalised, but 865 is still a staggering number. If even 3 in each of these 865 per bed were in crisis, only 1/3 of them would receive the treatment that they needed. It’s a horrifying statistic, and for many people, there’s just no bed available. And if there’s no mental health bed, you can’t even be legally detained under a section.

I guess in a way I have been lucky to have been cared for properly when I was in crisis. If anything, getting admitted to hospital highlights an adequate response to being unwell. I was ‘lucky’ (I sure as hell didn’t feel it at the time) to be recommended for a mental health act assessment and then sectioned in order to keep me in hospital. I was ‘lucky’ to have been transferred to a PICU (the only bed in the country was in Sheffield, a huge relief considering I could have been sent anywhere) instead of being discharged for self-harm that staff just couldn’t cope with.

I have had direct experience of being treated for in a psychiatric hospital. A year of my life has been spent inside the walls of 4 different hospitals. It was the best thing for me each time I was in, but the experience itself was no fun. You can read more about that in my previous blog posts documenting diary entries from when I was inpatient aged 17.

But in this post I wanted to offer some advice on how to help support a friend or family member who has been admitted to hospital. It’s not rare and many people have a mental health crisis at some point in their lives. Here’s how I think you could help:

  1. Don’t push to visit unless you’ve been explicitly asked – getting admitted to a ward can be a very unsettling experience and it can take some time for anyone to get used to the environment. Whilst seeing friends can be a massive comfort, it can also be a little bit too much too soon. Give them some space.
  2. Instead, write to them. Send them post – getting snail mail is really exciting when you’re detained in hospital. Not only is it a reminder that someone actually gives a shit enough to sit down and write an actual letter, but it helps them to stay connected in their own time. Sending photos and little positivity cards is also a good idea.
  3. Remember special holidays – I can tell you now, being in hospital on Christmas Day 2015 was utter shit. It was absolutely miserable. I was lucky that my family were able to come and see me on Christmas Day, and brought presents from all my friends. People from school also sent me cards which was really nice.
  4. Find out what they are and aren’t allowed on the ward – in the open units I’ve been in, patients have been allowed pretty much anything other than the obvious sharps and conventionally dangerous items. However in PICU, the rules can be very strict. The majority of patients aren’t allowed rubbers, socks, anything plastic, more than one teddy, anything that could be ligated with, or anything that could be broken. Don’t send them anything they could use to hurt themselves.
  5. Educate yourself on mental illness – take some time to try to understand your friend or family member without being judgemental. The stigma against mental illness is phenomenal, and honestly it meant so much to me when my friends read up on BPD and were able to talk to me about it and how they could help.
  6. Don’t blame yourself and don’t feel responsible – in a mental health crisis, being on the ward is the safest place anyone can be, when treated properly. Don’t waste time worrying about how you could have done more to prevent this from happening, but instead keep showing this person that they’re loved and cared about and that you will be there for them every step of the way.

There are plenty of services where you can talk about your own struggle with mental health issues, or to vent and help yourselves when coping with someone close to you struggling.

The 24/7 helpline rang by SAMARITANS is 116 123.



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