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.
One 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.
Then I find the solution I'm looking for. In this study, as I remember it, two random groups of psychiatric patients received plants. In one group, the nurses watered the plants for the patients. In the other group, the patients watered their own plants. On measures of depression before and after the experiment, the patients who watered their own plants showed the most improvement.
I ask my supervisor if we can conduct a similar study. "Talk to the infectious diseases control nurse," he says. I give her a copy of the study and an argument about oxygen. Her eyebrows arch. "Ants, cockroaches, all sorts of bugs" she says and walks away to give a lecture on hand washing. I bring it up in the team meeting. Everyone smiles and nods. I try to speak with the director, whom I never see on the ward. Her office sits outside the locked doors. She has plants. The study never happens.
Red Regina Mums in the hallway that was the last one to close--it used to be one of the busiest homeless shelters in Boston. (Anna Schuleit)
My supervisor brings me photos from an art exhibit entitled Bloom, commissioned to commemorate the closure of the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. Affectionately known as "Mass Mental," the hospital had been open for 91 years functioning as the premier teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School. It trained thousands of psychiatrists and offered services regardless of ability to pay. In 2003, Mass Mental closed its doors, saying it would soon reopen. The hospital commissioned Anna Schuleit to create art in the emptied space.