06/06/2013 05:57 BST | Updated 05/08/2013 06:12 BST

To Visit or Not to Visit, That is the Question!

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When someone has an appendicitis or breaks their leg, family and friends immediately rally around, visiting them in hospital, laden with chocolates, flowers and cards wishing the person a speedy recovery. These are all lovely and appropriate gestures and much appreciated. Regular medical procedures or operations attract much more attention and sympathy because they are simple health issues where the person is going to get better and make a full recovery. There are no worries of offending, doing or saying the wrong thing in these circumstances!

This relatively simple subject was brought to my attention the other day, by a dear friend and fellow author. When one is suffering from mental health problems, receiving visitors or gifts is a very different story. Firstly people don't know whether to visit or not, afraid they might say the wrong thing. They don't know what to write in a card, since there may not be a full recovery in sight, and even taking a simple gift seems to pose a problem. This may appear to be a small issue, but to the person hospitalized it can be very upsetting, leaving them feeling ignored, that their health issues are unimportant, or worse still, proving that stigma is still very much attached to mental health.

In my case suffering from two chronic diseases where everyone knows I'm not going to make a full recovery, good wishes are rare, and visits or gifts far and few between. People don't know what to say or do. At a loss for words, although they realise I'll make it through a particular crisis, I am not going to actually "get better". I suppose if standing in their shoes for one moment, I too probably wouldn't know what to write in a card. I've been in and out of hospital since I was young, in fact so many times, I've long lost count. If my family and friends were to send me a card each time I was hospitalized; well, I'd have shares in "Hallmark" cards by now. When someone like myself is often in hospital for a period of time, it is usually due to serious illness, and to be perfectly honest I am normally not in good physical or mental shape to receive visitors. I don't want people to see me in terrible pain, rigged up to i.v.'s and tubes, looking far from my best dressed in hospital attire and with no energy for stimulating or engaging conversation.

Once I am home however, this is the time for visitors, but for me, as much as chocolates and flowers are joyfully received, my family and friends are aware of the strains put on my husband due to long-term care-giving. Hence Tupperware containers filled with home made soups, or ready made meals that simply need warming up, are a much more practical way of helping, and letting my husband and I know we are in their thoughts.

It's the gesture more than anything that's important. A friend who was hospitalized some years ago, had a fortune of visitors, however I knew a small bouquet of flowers on her hospital night stand would be a cheerful reminder of her beautiful garden, and a slice of home-made English Dundee cake covered in marzipan and royal icing, would be very much appreciated.

Sending cards or taking gifts to those in hospital is very individual, and depends on the circumstances of hospitalisation. Most people enjoy having visitors whilst in hospital, breaking up a tedious day it can be a welcome interlude. If a "get well card" is appropriate, then by all means take one, but if you really don't know what to write as the person in question has an on-going serious illness, maybe take their favourite treat or flowers. Although you may be inclined to take a generous large bouquet, there is often little room in a hospital ward, so a small flower arrangement in its own basket or plastic container which can be placed on a bedside table is the best solution. If the flower arrangement is accidentally knocked over, there is no broken glass, and the patient when alone, can enjoy looking at the cheerful flowers next to them. Another nice gift to take a woman in hospital can be a small bottle of perfume or hand cream, since these are items one often doesn't think to take with, but can make one feel a little pampered at a time when it's most needed.

If you are unsure of whether to visit or not, consult with a close member of the person's family. Even if the answer is "No", at least the family realise you cared enough to call and ask, and maybe a visit once they are home is more fitting.