September 04, 2020

By Chris Bonine

When the hospital doors close behind you for the first time, it often feels more like the beginning of a prison stint than the start of a journey to recovery. The immediate deprivation of personal choice and the creature comforts of private life only seem to reinforce this perception. So do the round-the-clock surveillance and the long stretches with little more to do than watch television and speak with your peers.

Despite this, stays on acute psychiatric wards often occur at important crossroads in life — during periods of overwhelming stress or insurmountable grief, for instance. And while the psychiatric ward does a good job in securing the individual from harm to self or others, it can also provide them the time and space to improve other areas of life if they choose to do so.

Here are a few tips to help a patient make the most of a stay on an acute psychiatric ward, so that the “first day of the rest of your life” is a healthier one, as well.

Smoking Cessation

With tobacco use identified as a major, but preventable, contributor to several of the leading causes of death in the U.S., it makes sense that one would want to stop smoking as soon as possible. However, in the thick of a stressful situation, smoking cessation may not be thought of as the urgent priority it is. To the contrary, some might lean on smoking as one of the few stress-relievers available.

The fact that many acute psychiatric wards either do not allow smoking or do not have the facilities to accommodate smoke breaks can sometimes make smoking cessation not only appealing, but necessary. Additionally, the availability of nursing and health care staff make this an ideal opportunity for a patient inclined to stop their use of tobacco to receive education on how to quit. They can also see how they tolerate other smoking cessation interventions (e.g., patches, gum, etc.), and develop other — healthier — habits to replace the urge to smoke.

As part of discharge, staff can help connect you with materials and resources to make the smoke-free life a permanent change.

Blood Sugar and Diabetes

Diabetes affects a significant number of psychiatric patients, potentially due to the metabolic effects of many psychiatric medications. The rate of diabetes is between double and triple that of the general population for those with severe mental illness.

Untreated diabetes can result in loss of vision and decreased sensation in the extremities, among other symptoms that would only serve to complicate existing stressors. However, many diabetics find success in addressing diabetes by better monitoring their blood sugar. Being more mindful of sugar intake and its impact on hemoglobin A1C — one of the leading indicators in tracking risk for diabetes — can help someone  slow the onset of the condition or avoid it altogether.

An inpatient stay on a psychiatric ward provides an ideal time for staff to routinely monitor your blood sugar, draw A1C labs and help you see firsthand the connection between your dietary intake, serum glucose and hemoglobin A1C. This can be the first step to a healthier future.

Sleep Hygiene

A psych ward stay is a time to tune out the “noise” of life and focus on nothing but your health, including as your sleep. A good night’s sleep has an immeasurable effect on your mood and mental state.

Unfortunately, the acute psychiatric ward is not known for being conducive to sound sleep. The observation schedules wards maintain to ensure that all patients are safe varies from hourly to constant. This can present a significant disruption to your rest.

However, you can use this time to determine what helps you achieve a solid block of sleep. Do you prefer to sleep with the window open? With music? What sleep aids have been helpful? Does melatonin work or does chamomile tea do the trick?

Sleep is also diligently monitored in psychiatric wards. Your stay is a good opportunity to consider the sleep data staff collect and brainstorm with them about strategies for improving your sleep.

Stress Reduction

Perhaps chief among the benefits of a stay on an acute psychiatric ward is that no one in your immediate surroundings has any major expectations of you, in the sense that they are not “depending” on you. The only focus is on stabilizing your mental health and getting you to a state where you can go back to regular life.

This freedom can allow you to step back, re-evaluate how you have handled stress previously and devise new ways to overcome it upon your return to the outside world. Reflection, as well as the use of insight to identify the connection between stress, coping mechanisms and undesirable outcomes, can be a major benefit of staying on the ward if you decide to use your time there this way.

Please consider these tips as you engage in purposeful recovery and your next comeback!

Chris Bonine is a psychiatric nurse at a federal hospital and has experience in residential treatment, as well as both acute and long-term psychiatric wards. 

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