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How to make hospital visits easier

Globe and Mail Update

They have no trouble getting volunteers at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; for every job posted – from art therapists to yoga instructors - the hospital receives abut 20 applications. But what is more often in short supply are visits from family and friends. Even people who make the effort at the beginning of a patient's stay may stop in only a couple times. But both patients and experts say that social visits are key to recovering from a mental illness. They offer these suggestions on how to make visits easier.

Bring chocolates, flowers, funny cards. If you'd bring a gift to a friend who has had a heart attack, patients ask, why wouldn't you do the same for a friend suffering from depression?

Don't assume that you are protecting someone's privacy by not visiting. And don't be offended if the patient doesn't want visitors. They may feel differently as their treatment progresses.

Let the patient guide the discussion. Don't insist on focusing on their illness or treatment. “A lot of families talk about getting back to the way things used to be,” says Melanie Ollenberg, the volunteer co-ordinator at CAMH. But patients, she says, want to focus on the future, “the idea that recovery is possible.”

Be enthusiastic and cheerful during visits. And show up when you say you are going to.

Get to know the staff on the floor, and inquire about the role you can play in providing information, even if, because of privacy rules, doctors are not permitted to share much in return.

Accept that patients may respond to company in different ways, at different times. Participating may mean watching in silence or going in or out of the room, Ms. Ollenberg says. “A question to ask is why am I going? For them or for me?”

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