No Flowers on the Psych Ward

Administration looks at everything as a possible weapon of self or mass destruction. But we need windows and nature. 

The connecting hallway between the historic part of MMHC and the research annex was covered in blue African Violets. (John Gray)

Psychiatric hospitals have a certain smell. Old urine hits the nostrils first and then the sting of bleach. As I unlock the metal doors, the smell lets me know where and what I am: a pre-doctoral intern at a forensic psychiatric hospital in Boston. As I walk down the white hall, I see a white woman in a Harvard sweatshirt, a Boston red-sox cap covering her curly ponytail. She screams, "If you are not crazy when you get in here, you are crazy when you get out!"

Perhaps I was naïve to think that healing was the intention, but on the ward, I find only its absence. The hospital functions as a holding cell for people not safe on the streets and not safe in jail. People rotate through. One of the regulars, an African-American man who whistles loudly tells me, "I was born in a zoo, and I'll die in a zoo." I tell myself otherwise, but it's hard not to feel like a zookeeper.

Boredom fills the ward, too. An African American woman wears the same pink sweatpants all year. She is obese both from the side effects of the her meds and from her never leaving bed. She develops hypertension and then diabetes. I wonder if boredom can classify as an infectious disease. The staff tries to motivate everyone: Exercise classes! Substance abuse chats! Morning meetings!

Some patients feign interest in order to improve their chances of being discharged. It is the staff, and abiding interns, who make all the decisions. Psychiatric hospitals, by definition, disempower patients. Having a crime plus mental illness on your record means a loss of certain rights. But I do not want a doctorate in disempowerment. As the year wears on, I am having a hard time getting out of bed.

* * *

BLOOM-by-Anna-Schuleit-Tiny-Office-with-Tulips-inset.jpgOne of the tiny offices on the third floor, with orange tulips at mid-day. (Anna Schuleit)

Enter the flower shop. After a particularly hard day, I see a glass window reading "New Leaf Flores." I am greeted with vibrant oranges and twigs. I walk in and the owners offer me a glass of red wine. Their shop quickly becomes my mental health salvation. Every Friday, after walking the white walls of the ward, I walk to their flower shop and spend the evening taking thorns off red roses.

Psychiatric hospitals have no flowers. Visitors do not bring them. They usually bring toothpaste, deodorant and underwear. I ask my supervisor if I can bring leftover flowers from the shop. "Glass vases," he shakes his head. I find plastic vases and sneak in de-thorned pink roses. A patient asks, "Can I give one to my girl?" The next day, the flowers and plastic vases vanish.

So many items cannot come onto a locked psychiatric ward. Administration looks at everything as a possible weapon of self or mass destruction. No curtains. No jewelry. No art. No glass. And, I learn, no flowers, no plants, no nature.

Searching for a way to up both my own and the patients' spirits, I find a wealth of research on the intuitive link between nature and mental health. A few studies conclude that office workers perform better with windows and foliage. Another shows that ornamental indoor plants in hospital rooms enhance health outcomes for patients recovering from surgery.

Presented by

Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky

Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky, Psy.D., is a community and clinical psychologist based in Hawaii and the Cook Islands. She teaches at Hawaii Pacific University and writes about health across different cultures.

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