By Jenny Westberg, board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland, May 21, 2010
published in Coming Up For Air, a monthly guest column in Street Roots Newspaper
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, each year around 25 percent of adults suffer from a diagnosable mental illness — more than 57 million of our friends and family members. For severe and persistent mental illness, the figure is still high: about 1 in 19, or 5 percent of everyone.
What do you do when a friend or loved one seems to drop off the grid?
Recently a friend of ours stopped answering her telephone and responding to email messages. A few days went by and we started to worry a bit.
One of the places we often look to find our friends is in an inpatient psychiatric unit at a local hospital. But this poses unexpected problems.
“Legacy Hospital Systems, can I help you?”
“Psych unit please.”
“Psychiatric unit, can I help you?”
“Is my friend Mary Jones there?”
“I’m sorry, but to protect the privacy of all patients, we do not provide information about whether a person is, or isn’t, a patient.”
“But she’s my friend.”
“I’m sorry, but our hospital is bound by federal law to not disclose information about a patient without their explicit consent.”
“But I am so worried! How can I find her?
“I’m sorry, but I cannot help you.”
That’s often how it goes. It’s incredibly frustrating, but it’s not the fault of the psych nurse. She’s doing her job, and if she could – and thought it is was in the best interests of the patient – she probably would tell you. But she can’t, and she won’t.
Unless you ask her in another way.
But first, there is a way to do this which is not sneaky, and it’s the way I suggest you plan to do it.
Here’s what my friend John says to newcomers, “If you don’t have a plan, your plan is probably going to fail.”
In Oregon, that plan is called a Declaration for Mental Health Treatment. Similar to a living will, it it is a legal document that can be used to express preferences for psychiatric treatment, so that if you are hospitalized and unable to give or withhold consent, your wishes will be honored.
There are many reasons to prepare a Declaration for Mental Health Treatment. It can be difficult for anybody to assert themselves in a hospital situation. For someone in crisis, it might be almost impossible. A Declaration can make it clear which treatments you consent to, and which you do not want.
Your Declaration can also include information that will help people who might be looking for you, including phone numbers to call, and whether it’s okay to let certain people know you’re there.
If your friend has not prepared such a document, here’s how to determine whether he or she is in a psychiatric unit. When you call, don’t ask if they are there. Assume they are there and ask to be transferred.
Say, “I’d like to speak to patient Mary Smith.” They’ll look at the computer and see if she’s there. Then they’ll say one of two things.
“I’ll transfer you now.” Or, “I don’t see a Mary Smith listed here.”
Then she’s not there and you can disconnect and move on to the next hospital.
If they transfer you to the psychiatric unit, be polite and assume they don’t want to directly connect you. Ask, “Is now a good time to talk with Mary?” They’ll typically say yes or no. If they say no, don’t insist. Leave a message for her but make it only – “Get well soon.” Ask what the visiting hours are. Ask if today would be a good day to visit. They’ll never say no – but the delay in saying yes is a good indicator of it may not be a good day to visit. Then we know what hospital she is at and we can go visit. Always go visit. Phone calls are a poor substitute that can leave the wrong impression when someone is psychotic or depressed. But more than that, hospitals can be lonely and isolating places. Your visit can bring some much-needed joy.
Jenny Westberg is a member of the board of directors for the Mental Health Association of Portland, a nonprofit advisory organization that supports advocacy efforts on issues around mental health. Information about their work is available at www.mentalhealthportland.org