Basic display of warmth sadly lacking in psychiatric ward

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 April, 2001, 12:00am

Much has been written about the lack of a simple bedside manner within Hong Kong's medical system.

It may not come as a surprise, but it is still disturbing to witness the problem even in a hospital ward dedicated to the treatment of people at their most mentally vulnerable.

Having taken a drug overdose, a friend with depression recently spent four nights in a public psychiatric ward.

She was a risk to herself and in need of the close supervision provided. Frightened and disoriented, she was also in need of compassion and some hint that life was worth sticking around for. She had trouble finding it.

This was not a mental-health horror story circa 1932, although such things may well still exist. The shame is it was not all it could be in 2001. Warmth and honest human contact at a time when needed most came a distant second to brusque efficiency and the needs of 'the system'. All rather depressing.

Yes, the staff were overworked and on the ball when it came to making sure patients were not able to harm themselves. Yes, some of the regimentation was probably unavoidable in the name of smooth operations. Yes, limited resources may mean throwing together patients with vastly different problems - the delusional and disruptive with the all-too-common depressed, those who need silence with those who want only to scream.

One would have thought these factors were all the more reason to make a priority of ameliorating the unpleasantries with a basic display of warmth. The pity is what was shown had to be the exception rather than the rule.

The pills prescribed were the latest available, but there the treatment stopped. Apart from TV and limited reading, activities did not extend much beyond paper-flower making. Other 'options' were pacing for hours or sitting in deep contemplation of the floor.

The overriding principle seemed to be: wait for the drugs to work. In the meantime, behave.

Of course, being the only Westerner did not help. 'We are Chinese,' ran the resigned refrain when my friend spoke to some of the other patients about why things were as they were - the 'Asian values' argument comes to health care.

Ironically enough, if the staff were having trouble breaking through whatever cultural and other barriers prevented warmer contact, some of the patients seemed to be 'suffering' from a new-found tendency towards spontaneity.

One was singing My Way and Born Free with a liberal infusion of heart and soul - no doubt trying to tell someone something.