Why not? You can too.

Setting up your own program, sharing hope in the Psych Ward

Setting up Your Own Program

We launched our program in June, 2019. Since then, we’ve reached over 1,500 cards, received over 3,000 greeting card donations from dozens of donors across the country, and made dozens of hospital visits and deliveries. Our Psych Ward Greeting Cards program has been highly praised. We’re proud to have a significant and growing psychiatric unit outreach program. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of our patients, hospital staff, card donors, supporters, and collaborators (here), who have made this program possible. It started as a hope to share hope. I am proud of the work of our ForLikeMinds community, and I hope our program will continue to grow and help bring our community closer together.

Since we started our Psych Ward Greeting Cards program, we have received many inquiries from across the country from people wanting to start their own program in their community or local hospital. I have been thrilled by this interest and potential. Our program outcomes thus far, have far exceeded our expectations. It has been a very rewarding experience for patients, hospital staff, card donors, card designers, other collaborators, and me. Programs like this are needed across the country. Patients in psychiatric units need the support of our mental illness community and our allies.

And there are many that could be helped. As of 2014, there were over 170,000 residents in psychiatric inpatient and other 24-hour treatment beds on any night in a variety of settings. These include specialized public and private psychiatric hospitals, psychiatric inpatient programs, and licensed residential treatment units in general hospitals among other organizations (here). Evidence exists that a program like ours can make a difference to these patients.

It is easy, simple, low cost and low-to-medium effort to start a greeting card program. Basically: secure a hospital collaborator, collect donated greeting cards, and distribute them to hospitals. The cards are distributed as part of art therapy and group therapy sessions and also one-on-one to patients, in which you may also be able to participate in-person as I do. More specifically, these are the steps we took.

Working with Psychiatric Units

1. Identify psychiatric units — private hospitals may be easier to access than public hospitals, which are subject to more regulation. This may be the best first step, because some hospitals may not be interested in this sort of program. You should secure one before you start requesting card donations;

2. Identify the appropriate hospital contact — the most important contact will be the psychiatric unit’s art therapy/activities and psychosocial rehabilitation department which typically oversees this type of program. You can usually obtain their contact information by calling the psychiatric unit. You may also want to make inquiries with the hospital’s volunteer program department;

3. Brief description of program — be prepared to provide a brief description of your program, including objectives. It is also helpful to have a written description, which you can email to them. This is particularly helpful if they have to get the permission from other staff;

4. Distributing cards by mail — you may choose to distribute cards by mail for the hospital to distribute. This is an easier option to a personal visit. I personally like to visit hospitals;

5. Distributing cards in person — cards are typically distributed during group sessions. Each arts therapist/activities director may have a limited number of group sessions per week. So your proposed program must be as good as a typical art therapy/activities group session to be attractive; and

6. Volunteer application process — if your program is approved by the arts therapist/activities director, you may have to go through a volunteer application process.

Requesting Card Donations

1. Promoting your program — create an easy way for people to learn about your program. The easiest way is to post a request to your social media and ask people to email you for additional information. It’s also helpful if you have a website to refer people to. You can very easily and inexpensively create a simple website on Squarespace. This is helpful if you plan to make this an ongoing program;

2. Call for donations — a simple way to make an initial call for donation is to post a request to your social media, and that may be all you need. A good source of cards is also card designers — independent, local, national. Sometimes card designers have cards with minor defects or last season cards, which they can’t sell or have in stock, which they may be willing to donate to you. You can also let your social media community know about any donation, which may allow the designer to reach your audience as potential customers;

3. Messages in cards — you should make it clear that you’re willing to accept cards with messages and blank cards. It’s also nice to request embellishments such as stickers, which can be great for decorating cards;

4. Guidance on messages — A good suggestion as to messages to be included in cards is to ask people to write a message they like to hear when they are sick — struggling and overcoming your illness, something hopeful and encouraging. It’s great when patients write messages (1,2) in cards to share with each other as they know what it feels like to live with mental illness. We also have a few suggestions. It’s nice to sign messages, which help personalize them even further.

5. Type of cards — you should make it clear that you’re interested in handmade and store-bought cards. Some people may prefer to give you handmade cards. They may organize their own “card making party” with friends and organizations that participate in volunteer activities such as mental health non-profits and church groups, which may be great for building “community” and increasing “mental health awareness”. It’s also nice to include envelopes with the cards.

6. Acknowledging card donors — it’s good practice to acknowledge donations received on your social media. All you do is take photos of the cards received, and post them to your social media along with a nice caption naming and thanking the donor, acknowledging their generosity and support. You may also want to create a simple blog using Medium — it’s free and takes five minutes to create. It’s nice to have a permanent record of the donations you received and your hospital visits;

7. Continued engagement of donors — after receiving card donations, try to keep your card donors engaged by letting them know when and where their cards were distributed and providing details on your visit; and

8. Schedule a visit — once you’ve collected a good number of cards schedule a visit. I have found that about 25 cards for each visit is reasonable. In addition to the 25 cards, it’s nice to bring extra cards for those patients who did not attend the group.

During Your Visit

1. Group sessions supervision — if approved, you will always be supervised by an arts therapist/activities director;

2. Approval by arts therapists/activities director — if approved, you should share your plans on how you’d like to organize the group session and ask the point person at the hospital for their feedback and guidance;

3. Patient interests — if approved, establish objectives for your visit. It’s nice to make your group session inspirational, informative, interesting, enjoyable, and stimulating, but you should be prepared to let patients express their preferences –“go with the flow”;

4. Talking about your personal experiences — if you’re living with mental illness it can be very inspiring to patients to hear about your own experiences, especially prior hospitalizations, struggles, and how you overcame them. This will make you more relatable to patients. Talking about your prior hospitalizations and struggles may be triggering. You have to determine if this is something you’re willing to share, but it can be very helpful to patients. That said, I don’t think you have to be living with mental illness to have a program. The most important thing is that you care and show empathy and compassion;

5. Distributing the cards — once you talk about your personal experiences you can lay your cards out on a table and let the patients select the cards. Patients may look through several cards before selecting one based not only on the card’s image, but also the message. Try to bring an assortment of different types of cards so that patients have a good selection, if possible. It is especially nice to donate holiday cards a time when patients may feel even more alone;

6. Distributing blank cards — for these cards, patients can write a messages they would like to receive and give the cards to other patients or put them back into distribution for other sessions and/or hospitals. Hospital staff usually provide writing instruments;

7. Reading messages aloud — after patients have selected a card they may be interested in reading the card’s message aloud, which can be very moving (if you’re the emotional type, be prepared to cry a little);

8. Patient thank you poster — To show additional appreciation for donors and make them feel even more part of the program you can ask the patients to make a simple thank you poster naming the hospital, the name of the card donor, signed by the patients (first name only). Then you can have a photo taken of the poster with a staff member if possible, which is great. Note that neither patients nor their full names are allowed in the photo;

9. Post visit — after each visit we post a summary of the visit and a photo of the patient thank you poster if staff has provided their permission to our Facebook Page and our “Our Work” Medium Blog.

10. Testimonials — testimonials from art therapists/activity directors are nice to have. It may allow you to reach out to more hospitals and demonstrate the effectiveness of your program. It may also show card donors proof of the value of the program and even attract additional card donations; and

Please feel free to use my program description, blog example, and Facebook posts examples. All of my Facebook posts start with a yellow “Psych Ward Greeting Cards” image, which makes them easy to find.

I know this list may seem like a lot, but it is merely meant to be illustrative of a possible program. It is up to you, the patients, and hospital staff to make it happen in a way that is suited to the specific setting and make it a great experience. Above all, the most important thing is to think about the patients. We must let them know they are not forgotten while hospitalized as many of them feel. We must let them know that we’re thinking of them.

I would love to see psych ward greeting cards programs across the U.S. and Canada too. There’s a lot of love in our mental illness community, and it’s a beautiful thing to share our hope with people like us and for allies to show we matter. I strongly encourage you to set up your own program even if it’s just for a one-time visit — a one-time visit can make a difference. Please share hope in your hometown.

Warmest regards, Katherine




Sharing hope in the Psych Ward

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