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Smackdown Gift Guide: What to Send a Friend in the Mental Hospital

By Amalah

Hi Amy,
You’re awesome. Your readers are awesome. Google has failed me. Or maybe I’m not qualified to use Google. So I’m turning to you and your brilliant readers. I have a friend who checked into a mental health facility over the weekend. I want to send her a care package, yet I’m completely at a loss for what is appropriate.
Help.OH PLEASE HELP ME!? Any and ALL suggestions are appreciated.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Another Amy

Well, aren’t you sweet! What a very nice idea, and an idea that obviously a lot of people don’t think of, according to how unhelpful Google is in this circumstance. Probably because a lot of friends and family prefer to ignore the situation or just attempt to grin-and-bear it instead of treating the patient as just that — a patient. Who is trying to get better. Good for your friend, as well.
Honestly, I would start with a call to the hospital. Ask to speak with a nurse or someone who could tell you what sort of things are acceptable and what is not allowed on the wing. I did find one hospital that provides a helpful online list of allowed and non-allowed items. I bet this is fairly standard, so you can at least ensure that your care package won’t get ransacked for contraband.
So after looking at what is allowed in a typical psychiatric hospital, what can you send? Well, most patients complain first and foremost of the tedium, and spend a lot of time writing or reading. A journal would be a nice gift (provided it’s not spiral-bound), along with stationary, envelopes and stamps. Make sure your friend has her address book with her, or buy one and fill in as many addresses of mutual friends and family members as possible. If she has long-distance friends and family, include a pre-paid phone card.
bunny-slippers.jpgSend some books or magazines — personally I’d probably want light, beach-type reading, like chick lit and the weekly gossip rags and a fashion mag or two. Or just send her some books you’ve read and enjoyed recently. Used books are just fine, since she may want to donate them to the hospital or pass them along to other patients rather than lug them all home.
And then there are the pampering ideas. You don’t have a ton of options, since toiletries may be somewhat restricted, but I’m sure a nice basic gift set would be allowed, like Philosophy’s Grace or Breakfast in Bed. (If you do opt for a gift set, be careful about the packaging. Remove all bows and ties and string and avoid stuff that could get flagged for any reason, like wicker baskets or wire handles.) (I was actually going to suggest a service like, which I’ve used many times for friends and family during hospital stays and illness, but now that I’m thinking of the packaging angle I’d say just buy and pack your own pajamas/slippers/robe gift, if you think she’d like that.)
Above it all, though, don’t overlook the cheapest and simplest gift — a letter. More than one letter. More than two letters. Let her know that you support her and are proud of her for taking care of herself, but don’t dwell on the whole “you’re in the mental hospital and wow, that’s heavy, dude” thing. Write your letters like you would write emails to her. Send her funny stuff you find on the Web. Tell her about the latest office gossip and how your boss is being a jerk again.
She’s sick, but she’s not terminal or a leper or liable to shatter into a million pieces if not handled with kid gloves at all times — she’s still your friend, and you sound like a pretty good friend to her already, so just…keep being the same friend you were before, just of the old-fashioned pen-and-paper variety.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • CLK

    April 24, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    When I was in college, my friend that I have known since I was 2 years old called to tell me she was in a mental facility. I had a local cell phone still so it was free to call me. She called me everyday for a week(I was in a different city), and then during spring break(the next week) I went to my hometown and actually went to visit her because that is what she asked for when I asked if she needed anything. I brought her a cute teddy bear (take all ribbons off, but if you don’t they do it for you at the hospital). It lifted her spirits and she was out of there in maybe a week more. Good luck. Just be a good friend (which you are obviously) and make sure that whatever you send her, you take the packaging into consideration.

  • TasterSpoon

    April 24, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    One thing I didn’t see on the hospital’s “don’t” list was spray perfume (which I had thought would counteract that “hospital” smell). When they took it from me I assumed it was because of the alcohol in it, but maybe it was the glass bottle.

  • Valette

    April 24, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    When I had a friend check herself into a mental health facility, one of the things me and a few other friends did was bring her a big roll of blank newspaper (some offices give away the end of the rolls) and colored pencils. We spent the visiting hours coloring on the floor and then hung it up in her room. She said she appreciated that time with us a lot more than any of the gifts.

  • ScholarLi

    April 24, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    Toiletries, toiletries, toiletries! Find out what is acceptable. Most places provide the essentials (soap, deodorant, toothbrush/paste) — but they’re usually the cheapest varieties. Conditioner and lotion (hello, Curel!) may be appreciated, as they can keep her feeling human (hello, sanity!)
    Also — slippers are a great idea, but so are socks — cute & fun or comfy & athletic, new socks = squeee!

  • Danielle

    April 24, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    One warning about sending reading material: many of the medications that patients are given in a psychiatric hospital cause migraines if you try to read. When a friend of mine checked him into a mental hospital about seven years ago, we were very lucky that he was nearby and we could visit him several times a week, but when we brought books, he couldn’t read them. So we brought books without words, children’s picture books, coffee table books, etc. They don’t take as much time to look at, but he appreciated the thought.

  • Noelle

    April 24, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    A phone card!

  • Muirnait

    April 24, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    Great post, Amy 🙂 Sometimes I worry that I’ll have to check myself in to the hospital and I only hope that my friends would be as wonderful and understanding as the letter writer, yourself, and these other commenters.

  • Jenn

    April 24, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    When I was in the hospital I wasn’t allowed to use writing implements except to do specific tasks approved by the staff. I was, however, in a teenage suicide-watch ward. Maybe the rules are different for adults.
    (The guy who searched me when I went in found a pen in my bag, asked me if I was a writer, and when I said “yes,” put it back in my bag and made me swear not to let anyone know I had it. It totally saved me in there–I would have no record of my thoughts otherwise, and I would have gone crazier than I already was without it, as I also didn’t have any books.)

  • Flicka

    April 24, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    My husband was in and out of psychiatirc facilities for a while following his brain injury. One of the things I made him (still hanging on our study wall) was an 8×10 piece of posterboard titled “What I Like About You.” On it I wrote what I liked about him with little illustrations. (Stick figures, mostly. Talented, I am not.) I remember that he really loved that.
    I also bought a plastic photo album and loaded it with pictures of us and our friends so that he’d have something to look at between visiting hours. And I brought him one of my favorite stuffed animals so he could have a “friend” to talk to when I wasn’t there.
    He couldn’t read very much because of the meds he was taking (I think someone above may have already pointed this out) but I brought cards or a board game with me when I visited and we played with those things. I also wrote cards for him in advance and waited until he went to the bathroom and asked a staff member (ususally someone at the nurse’s station) to give the card to him after I’d gone. They’d normally wait until he got his evening meds so he wouldn’t be expecting it.
    I think it’s great that you’re reaching out to your friend. This sort of thing makes so much of a difference in recovery.

    • Nicole

      July 18, 2013 at 3:32 pm

      What you made for your husband sounds absolutely amazing, and the perfect thing to give to someone you care about who’s in a psychiatric facility. A close friend of mine, someone I’ve known my entire life who has been having a really hard last year since her father committed suicide (although she had depression long before that), is currently at a psychiatric facility, and I think I’m going to make something similar. 🙂 Thank you so much for the idea!

  • qwyneth

    April 25, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Ok, this post is making my eyes teary. I spent some time in a mental hospital and expect I probably will again someday. Also, Flicka, the posterboard that you made for your friend is the most amazingly helpful and kind thing I could imagine.
    So! What can you bring? The things I was really grateful for were super comfy pajama-style clothes, my own toiletries, crackers, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (ask the hospital before you go if your friend can receive food–oh, and don’t bring it if she’s being treated for an eating disorder), writing paper, and books. My friends also brought me a giant, snuggly stuffed animal and super soft chenille blanket. The nights got really long–I couldn’t sleep at night–and the hospital bedclothes were really utilitarian, and I was very grateful for the soft blanket and stuffed animals to snuggle.
    Honestly though, the most precious thing my friends gave me was time. My two best friends came to visit every chance they could. I looked forward to those visits more than anything. One of them braided my hair in funky ways each time, which was nostalgically comforting, and the other gave me a really comfy, fun skirt to wear. (I wore it every single day, because really–who cares in the psych ward?) One time they even brought in the makings for a very basic mousse. We whipped it up and I spent the rest of the time savoring spoonfuls and being reminded that I was loved every so often.
    Your friend may not want visitors though, or you may not be able to visit as often as my friends were. (We were in college at the time.) I love the idea of cheery letters or postcards chatting about what’s going on in the outside world, and a card or two telling your friend what you love about her. I would have read cards like that over and over and over again until my eyes fell out of my skull, trying to believe it.
    This is a wonderful post. Thank you, Amy and Amy.

  • Jen L.

    April 25, 2008 at 11:03 am

    When my uncle was in a treatment facility, he always got excited when we brought him rolls of quarters for the snack machines (don’t know if your friend has access to these). He also loved hearing about anything that was going on in the world, so we clipped newspaper articles and printed out internet stories we thought he’d like and brought them when we visited. If this seems to lift her spirits, she may also like to see pictures you have taken. If you see a particularly pretty flower in bloom or something along those lines in your daily travels, snap a picture and share it with her either in a letter or during a visit. It may help her feel less detached from the outside world. And never underestimate the power of the Hallmark card!! Everyone loves getting mail and sometimes that’s just the thing to brighten someone’s day. It’s wonderful that you are thinking of your friend and trying to make her time in the hospital more comfortable. She’s lucky to have you in her life!

  • Suzy Q

    April 25, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    Hugs all around!
    The only other thing I can think of to add is maybe a fun tote bag to put all her stuff in?

  • mimsy

    April 25, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    “she’s not terminal or a leper or liable to shatter into a million pieces if not handled with kid gloves at all times — she’s still your friend”
    Thank you for that. It is so true.

  • Jess

    December 26, 2014 at 2:55 am

    Defiantly write letters to your friend. I am an ex patient of our local adolescent psych ward and I still have the letters and cards people sent me whilst I was a patient there. Getting those letters ment that someone out there cares.