British Columbia

Isolation measures could be damaging for psychiatric patients, B.C. mother fears

A Victoria mother says she's deeply concerned that isolation measures experienced by her son in an acute psychiatric ward could be impeding his recovery.

Monica Mueller worries lack of human contact will hurt her son's recovery

Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. Monica Mueller says she has had little contact with her son, who is unable to go outside, or receive care packages, due to new isolation and physical distancing measures in the acute psychiatric ward. (Yvette Brend/CBC)

A Victoria mother says she's deeply concerned that isolation and distancing measures experienced by her son in an acute psychiatric ward could be impeding his recovery.

Monica Mueller said she learned of the new measures put in place on recommendations by provincial health officials after her adult son, who's been diagnosed with a type of bipolar disorder, was admitted to the emergency ward at the Royal Jubilee Hospital early last week. The measures are intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

But Mueller says she's "had little contact" with her son since, and the hospital's protocols are not transparent.

This hasn't been the case during his previous hospital stays in the past few years, she said.

"Some [patients] are extremely dependent on their parents or caregivers," she said, adding that part of her son's recovery process is to be in frequent connection with the outside world. 

During limited phone contact with her son and with nurses, Mueller learned patients can no longer be outside for "fresh air breaks," are not allowed to use exercise equipment, and are not being offered programs and activities that often help with recovery.

She added that loved ones can no longer send care packages, with items like books or clothes. "Can't they disinfect a book or a journal I send him?" Mueller said.

Island Health says it's keeping with provincial orders

A statement from Island Health says it is working with patients and families to find virtual ways to connect. It confirmed it has restricted the delivery of care packages and gifts, and has "limited activities that cannot be done safely and in accordance with the provincial health officer's orders and recommendations."

"For some populations within our acute care settings we are implementing a plan to reassign some recreational and occupational therapy resources to our inpatient units to create more opportunities to support patient self-care and rehabilitation," the statement said.

Island Health said it recognizes these are challenging times for patients and families, and that people throughout the province are "making extraordinary sacrifices" to keep everyone safe.

Mueller explained that before the pandemic, patients were allowed visits by family and friends, where medical professionals could assess their recovery based on their interaction with loved ones.

Now, she's extremely worried that the recent isolation measures could "add extra layers of traumatic stress" for her son and other patients, which could endanger them when finally released from the hospital.

Transparency key to recovery: CMHA

Jonny Morrison, the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association in B.C., said he empathizes with how strained the health system currently is, but understands how difficult it can be for people with severe mental illnesses to isolate from loved ones. 

"Making sure there's lots of transparency around rights and very clear explanations on recovery methods to the person admitted ... and to family members is very important" for patient recovery at this time, he said.

Mueller said she's thankful her son signed a release of information form allowing her to be privy to his treatment, but says many patients, especially those who experience paranoia, often refuse families this access.

She said finding other families in similar situations has been difficult, given lingering stigmas around mental health.

Island Health says anyone with a complaint should contact its Patient Care Quality Office, which allows services, systems and policies to be evaluated and improved.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.

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