Being hospitalized for a mental illness can be a challenging experience for the individual and for the loved one who is trying to help because of the restrictions in place to protect the person receiving treatment. These can include locked doors, clothing and gift rules, restrictive visiting hours, and limits on where patients can go. Phones are located only in common areas and their use is sometimes restricted. These rules are in place to help ensure the safety of the patient and others.
Due to privacy laws and treatment schedules, families may have a difficult time reaching their loved one by phone or visiting while they’re hospitalized. Many hospitals require the patient to sign a privacy release to allow family members or friends to contact them while hospitalized. Without a signed release, the hospital/facility cannot confirm if your loved one is even admitted, much less provide specific details on the status of their treatment.
You can ask to be connected to the unit and depending on the hospital, your call may be transferred to the patient phone area or the nursing desk. Be polite but assertive and request that a message be taken to your loved one.
During the hospital stay, it’s important that your loved one connects with people from their community who provide support and reassurance. Encourage your loved one to allow calls or visits from friends, neighbors, advocates, specific family members or their spiritual leader.
Visiting hours are often limited to make time for therapy sessions and other treatment. Check with the hospital about these times and any age restrictions.
If you are the parent or guardian of someone younger than 18, you generally have access to medical records and input into treatment decisions.
It is always preferable for your adult family member to share information with you. However, there are exceptions under federal law (HIPAA - Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) that permit providers to release information to you without consent. To learn more about these exceptions, see the guide HIPAA Privacy Rule and Sharing Information Related to Mental Health. You can find more information on health information privacy related to mental and behavioral health here.
For best results, ask your loved one to sign an authorization for release of this medical information to you during the emergency evaluation or admission process. If they refuse, ask staff to continue asking them throughout treatment in hopes that they will change their mind as their condition improves.
If a release has been signed, family members should request to attend a treatment team meeting that usually involves a social worker, nurse and psychiatrist. Ask the team for the following:
- Diagnosis and what the diagnosis means
- Course of the illness and its prognosis
- Treatment plan
- Symptoms causing the most concern, what they indicate and how they’re being monitored
- Medications prescribed, why these particular medicines have been selected, the dosage, the expected response and potential side effects
- If the diagnosis, medications and treatment plan have been discussed with your loved one, and the reasoning behind those decisions and if not, explain the reasoning
- Pamphlets and book recommendations that explain the illness(es) being treated
- How often you can meet with the treatment team to discuss progress
- Whom you can contact for information between meetings
- The aftercare plan once your family member has been discharged from the facility, and what to do if your loved one leaves against medical advice
At the treatment team meeting, you can describe what factors you think contributed to your loved one’s crisis, any particular stressors, and anything else you think might be helpful for effective treatment including challenges with adherence to treatment in the past. It’s also helpful for you to suggest the most appropriate living situation after their discharge. Be honest and don’t apologize if living with you isn’t an option.