What to say to an institutionalized friend?
October 8, 2007 5:17 PM   Subscribe

In high school I was involved in a nerdy extracurricular activity that occupied most of my time, and when I graduated most of my friends went to school A to study our field and I went to School B. One the friends I made through this association has, I've recently been informed, checked himself into a hospital for mental health reasons. He had already decided not to go back to university this semester (we attend different schools, so I found this out second hand). He had had issues in high school, but it sounds as though things have deteriorated dramatically. He is a brilliant person, and my life has been better for knowing him. I'm going to send an email to a relative of his that I think can get it to him for me. What do I say?

I'm kind of conflicted, because I want him to know there are still people who respect him and want him to get through this, but I know in his situation I would be (wrongly!) embarrassed to have dropped out of school. I know him fairly well, and I think he might be ashamed that his friends even know how bad things have gotten for him (my parents, who talk to his regularly, told me). I've been told he hasn't been diagnosed, but he had some pretty serious social phobias when I went to school with him (I mean this in a very pathological way - not your typical high school loner moodiness).

What can I say that won't come across like I'm pitying him? For anyone who has suffered from really debilitating mental illness, what did people tell you - what did you want to hear from your friends outside?

When I'm back in town, should I try to visit him, or would it only be awkward for him? I don't want to put him in a dilemma in which he doesn't want to be seen institutionalized while at the same time not wanting to turn me away.

I just have no idea what I would want someone to do for me in this situation, so I'm hoping someone who's been there can clue me in.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't been in this particular situation before, but, IMHO, it never hurts to tell people you care about them and are very glad they have been in your life. You might just want to send him a simple note that summarizes what you've said here: you heard from your parents, you know your life is kind of removed from his now, but your life has been better for knowing him (who wouldn't want to hear that?), and you'd like to offer him any support you can. As for visiting, tell him you'll be in town on such-n-such dates and "call/email/write if you feel like getting together" (very low pressure, if he doesn't feel comfortable with it, he can avoid the question and still feel okay about staying in touch with you).

I'm glad you're not letting awkwardness deter you here. This kind of thing can really make a difference to someone.
posted by eralclare at 5:55 PM on October 8, 2007

Try to let him know you are thinking of and pulling for him. Encourage him to work with his docs to get better. As you write, imagine he was in a car crash or came down with a serious but cureable disease. Try to normalize it for him, removing the "crazy" stigma.

As far as visiting him, try to get a feel from his folks if that would be a good idea. Maybe he can get email in the hospital? Depending on how his treatment is going visiting him could be great, or it could be impossible, as in not even allowed.

I'm not a doctor or therapist or anything, but i had a friend (also involved in a geeky high school extraciricular, oddly) go through something like this. He got through it. So can your friend. My gut tells me he'd be happy to know someone from his peer group- someone not a doctor, not his parents- is out there not judging him and cheering for him.
posted by vrakatar at 6:08 PM on October 8, 2007

Everyone is different, but I don't know anyone who has been institutionalized who wouldn't have appreciated communicating with family and friends on the outside. I think for a lot of people in that situation, it helps to normalize things.

Your friend is in a place where he hopefully will be able to clean slate, start over, and get his head in a good place. He probably feels very strange right now. I would send him a note, and I would tell him how you feel. You're a better person for knowing him and you're thinking about him. You can't wait to hang out again and if he wants to see you, just say the word. You're sorry he's going through a rough time but he doesn't have to worry about losing your friendship. As well, I don't think it would hurt to bring up a pleasant memory or two from times you've shared.

It may help him a lot to hear from someone who is close, but not so immediately close (like a family member would be) that their response is predictable. I think it's great you're not treating him like a pariah. If he has more friends like you, that can only help him get better.
posted by Lieber Frau at 6:09 PM on October 8, 2007

I've been on both sides of this and I think a note just letting him know you're thinking of him and hoping that things get better soon would be much appreciated. As for visiting, it can get pretty isolated in those kinds of places and a friendly face is always nice.
posted by perpetualstroll at 6:14 PM on October 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think the more normal you act about it, the less ashamed he'll feel. I liked vrakatar's suggestion to consider it a car crash or some curable sickness.
posted by salvia at 6:33 PM on October 8, 2007

definitely acknowledge what's going on. i would treat it like you would if you found out he'd gone into the hospital for chemo or something--he's ill, and it sucks, and you want to give him support. that's not pity.

probably the most reassuring thing for him would be for him to know you're still his friend even though this is happening. he's probably afraid his buds will drop him or think less of him. keep it casual and easy, so he knows he can write back. he may not, at first, but keep writing. as for the visit, i wouldn't even worry about that until the time comes. he won't know where he'll be, emotionally, in a month. you might want to raise the idea once you have your travel plans, but let him know it's okay if he doesn't feel up to it, and that you'll check in with his family the day before just to make sure.

in the meantime, you could start with something like "hey, XX, i've heard through my folks that you've had to go into the hospital. i'm so sorry you are going through this, and i hope you get to feeling better soon. if you're able to write, drop me a line and let me know how you're doing--i'm sorry we fell out of touch and that it took something this serious to get my attention, but i hope to be better about that now. in the meantime, take care of yourself, and i'll write again soon. anonymous"
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:49 PM on October 8, 2007

You're a good friend. I've twice had friend and a family member institutionalized - and I mean locked up after such. Not voluntary at all.

Be honest, don't rub the 'wounds' (why he's there, what's bugging him), don't let on that you know that his parents have possibly breached any confidence. Contact his parents yourself, and tell them you want to drop by. Call him if you're allowed (but only after his parents mention you're thinking of coming by; he might reject having anyone 'see' him this way.)

Just be there. Write. Visit. Tell him that you miss hanging out/doing a shared activity. Ask him if you can bring anything to him. A favorite food. Books he likes. Whatever you're allowed to pick up. I smuggled in a small portable TV for someone. I'm not suggested you break rules, but I did.

When you go there, tell him you wish you were as smart as he is (not that he's smart...he'll read it as, If you're so smart, why is he such a fuckup.) Reminisce about some amazing things he's done. In person is the way to do this.

Ask him how he's doing. He'll tell you when he'll get out. Otherwise don't broach the subject. When you find out that date...tell him to call you and you'll hang out. Tell him if he doesn't call, you'll come over anyway. Tell him that he's totally welcome to come hang out with you.
posted by filmgeek at 6:59 PM on October 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

What filmgeek says--it's all good stuff. You don't have to do it all , but do what you are comfortable with. These are sacred acts.
posted by hexatron at 9:04 PM on October 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

"... These are sacred acts."
You are Steely Dan's 'Major Dude' - in that you remind someone whose world is falling apart that 'any minor world that breaks apart falls together again' -He'll get better, and you want to be with him after the healing to enjoy life.
posted by eclectist at 11:34 PM on October 8, 2007

been in a very similiar situation, I was concerned that my friend would think her situation was common gossip so I just wrote a "it's been a long time & I was thinking about you" sorta letter. Kept it light, mentioned a few mutual memories that might bring a smile or laugh. A coupla genuine compliments, that she deserved. I never mentioned her current situation. Sometime later she said that the letter made a real difference for her. That it was a tangible reminder of love and laughter and goodtimes, and she reread it everyday.
posted by misspat at 10:34 AM on October 9, 2007

"He is a brilliant person, and my life has been better for knowing him."

Write the first letter with those sentiments in the front of your mind and it is sure to be comforting to him. Then, whether you hear from him or not, write again, frequently. And don't disappear on him when he gets out of the hospital. For a lot of people mental illness is a constant struggle. Even if things are made better by medication or a hospital stay that doesn't mean they go away completely and having friends who understand that and make a point of being present in your life can be a huge, huge asset.
posted by mjones at 1:29 PM on October 9, 2007

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