THE SECLUSION ROOM – CELL OR SANCTUARY?
By HUMPHRY OSMOND, M.D., 1959
Superintendent The Saskatchewan Hospital, Weyburn
SECLUSION ROOMS, found in most psychiatric hospitals, too often look as if they were intended as temporary quarters for wild animals, or perhaps as storerooms for dangerous chemicals, rather than as shelters for sick and distressed humans.
Yet, the purpose of seclusion is clear and admirable. It is intended to reduce interaction following a rupture in interpersonal relationships between the patient who is being secluded and other patients, or members of the hospital staff.
Seclusion usually occurs when there has been acting out or a threat of it. While skilled psychiatric nurses can often handle such situations without using seclusion, it is proper that a patient, in an explosive situation, should have an opportunity to withdraw to a suitable spot to be alone for a time or in the company of someone he trusts.
When children quarrel with siblings or parents, they are often sent or asked to go to their room and be alone with toys and playthings. Adults retire to a bedroom, a study or even to the toilet. Although it was once common practice, it is no longer thought admirable to lock a child in a dark cupboard. In his own room, he gets comfort from his toys, just as an adult will soothe himself with a book, a pet animal, possibly with music, or just by being alone.
The mentally ill person, who has had a rupture of interpersonal relationships, likewise needs space under his own control where he can “pick up the bits.” The best place would be a room of his own, with familiar furnishings and his personal possessions easily visible. Wherever his retreat, it should give external stimulation as well as support and comfort.
Bare, Drab Rooms Affect Perception
Seclusion rooms in many hospitals are built to some stereotyped plan, and are poorly-lit, bare, drab rooms of a curious cube-like construction which makes them seem unduly high. There is little or no furniture, often only a mattress. Walls are usually tiled in one color only, and this sometimes white. Windows covered with heavy screening, ceiling lighting often high and remote beyond the patient’s control, heavy imprisoning doors sometimes the same color as the walls, and in the middle of the floor a brass grating over a drain hole―no wonder these rooms are suggestive and frightening. Such rooms strongly resemble the reduced environment described by Hebb* in which even well people can experience major 18 changes in thinking,. perception and mood, larked in certain non-experimental situations, notably brain washing, such environments are deliberately used. to. encourage alterations in perception. Surely then it is un-wise to place psychotic people in a situation which, since it will not afford them even minimal external stimulation, is likely to increase the perceptual disorder which many of them already have.
The need for sufficient stimulation, particularly of a visuo-auditory type, combined with carefully selected tactile and olfactory stimulation, is strongly suggested by Goldfarb’s recent work at the Ittleson Family Center with children. His work indicates that many schizophrenic children tend to inhabit a tactile-olfactory world, rather than the more common and culturally acceptable visuo-auditory one. It seems probable that schizophrenic adults may be in much the same position.
Clearly then we must provide our disturbed patient with an adequate amount of pleasurable visuo-auditory experience while in seclusion, and also let his environment be rich in socially acceptable tactile-olfactory pleasures, lest he seek the only remaining gratification―tactile-olfactory ones from his own body. Specifically, let us imagine a patient, greatly disturbed, shut up in a bare room, with bare walls, little or no clothing, and possibly only a mattress or blanket as furnishings. The visuo-auditory and tactile-olfactory enjoyments to be obtained from such surroundings are very small. Is it surprising, therefore, if his seclusion results in apsophilic (auto-erotic) activity, in the tactile experience of staff members or even in reviving a tactile and olfactory interest in his own body products of urine and feces?
These apsophilic activities, the touching and snuffling on the nursing staff, and the handling of feces and urine are likely to produce great anxiety and great resentment in those who must care for the patient. He will naturally interpret this as dislike and rejection, and a vicious circle is established. He is driven deeper and deeper into his tactile-olfactory experiences, and probably also into full hallucinatory experience. Since we are woefully short of really sophisticated staff, we must make .very vigorous efforts to see that this type of “reduced environment” seclusion is banished from the mental hospital as quickly as possible.
The seclusion room, therefore, must be not merely pleasant, but the very best room on any ward. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, if the room is pleasant, it will take away the idea of punishment―not merely by a verbal gesture, but by a change in the attitude of everyone on the ward, patients and nurses, who will both be far more impressed by the fact that the seclusion room is the best on the ward than if there is simply lip service to the effect that seclusion is not punishment. Money invested in making this room conspicuously better than other rooms “because it is for those who are the most unwell” will indicate to both nurses and patients that the hospital particularly concerns itself with those who are the sickest. The fact that the room is an object of pleasure and satisfaction to all the patients on the ward will exert considerable pressure on the disturbed patient to use this joint possession properly. This pressure will be extremely effective in preserving the room from damage.
Dimensions and Decor Important
What, then, should this “best room in the ward” be like? Particular attention must be given to its size and proportions. A small room of great height is extremely oppressive to most people. and if such a room must be used, perhaps a false ceiling should be built in. The lighting must be good, and must, at least in part, be under the patient’s own control. The walls should be pleasantly painted in bright and reassuring colors. There should be pictures on the wall, and a mirror (a metal or unbreakable mirror is permissible). The bed should be comfortable and the bed cover pleasant. Sheets, pillows and mattress must of course be provided. There should be chairs and a desk, the chairs self-colored and if possible, textured. Patterned material is best avoided, since it may have a disturbing, Rorschach-like effect. (Until we know more about the effect of patterns on patients’ perceptions, we should be cautious about patterned materials.) A carpet or rug, preferably nylon, should be on the floor, which may be of tile or linoleum, but should be light in color. To avoid uncertainty about the passage of time, a clock and a calendar should be clearly displayed. If a toilet cannot be readily available, a modern commode chair may substitute, if it is explained to the patient.
It is important here, as elsewhere in the hospital, for the furniture to be light, strong and elegant, rather than heavy or cumbersome. Heavy furniture quickly becomes a challenge to some patients to see if it can be broken. It encourages all patients to lose one of the most important skills which we all acquire in childhood―the ability to maneuver through complicated mazes of furniture. This ability includes all sorts of skills, especially subliminal psychomotor movement. Mental patients frequently lose this ability through disuse, and all too often the arrangements in the mental hospital give them no opportunity to re-acquire it, or what is even more important, to correct early the tendency to lose it. Experimental work shows that, given the opportunity, people frequently correct perceptual errors on their own. But a bare room, fitted with one massive piece of furniture affords neither encouragement nor motive for correcting an error of any sort.
In the seclusion room, the patient should have diversions from the very start. Games, books, perhaps a slide projector, a television or record player under his control are all possibilities. Cut flowers and potted plants should decorate the room. Writing materials should of course be available, and if the patient has difficulty in writing, as some psychotic people do, he might be provided with chinagraph (grease) pencils and an ample supply of paper. Part of the wall might be processed for drawing. which people sometimes find pleasant when they are upset. Plasticine and paint should be provided. A way might also be devised for the patient to brew his own coffee or tea. A tape recorder could be provided to allow the patient to hear his own voice, and get accustomed to the fact that he really is there, though this should be handled with caution, because some people find it rather a disturbing experience.
All these measures must, of course, be combined with friendly interaction with a member of the hospital staff, one with whom the patient feels comfortable and can speak freely, but who, like the room itself, will keep him as close to reality as possible.
In brief, the seclusion room is ideally a place where the patient, after a rupture in interpersonal relation-ships, can re-assert his adultness and recover his poise, rather than a place of punishment where he is treated like an abandoned child in a dark cupboard or a bear in a pit.
(See link to original article for photo of music therapy session.)
*Dr. Donald Hebb, McGill University, conducted experiments in which the subject was placed on a bed in an air-conditioned box with arms and hands restrained with cardboard sleeves and eyes covered completely with translucent ski goggles. Hallucinations and delusions of various sorts developed, mostly in those who could stay longer than two days. Many subjects left at about twenty-four hours