For those battling mental illness, cards deliver hope during the holidays
Being a patient in a hospital psychiatric ward or mental health facility can be a deeply lonely experience during the holidays.
Katherine Ponte, a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, knows that feeling firsthand. During 18 years of active and severe mental illness, she was involuntarily hospitalized three times. Family and friends retreated from her.
“I felt forgotten and unloved,” she recalled of the experience. “It can be a hopeless time.”
Ponte was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her early 30s and reached recovery several years ago, managing the disease with medications and self-care. Her own experience inspired her determination to let others know during the holidays (and other times of the year) that though they may feel alone, someone cares about them and is rooting for their recovery.
In 2019, she created a program called Psych Ward Greeting Cards to bring hope and comfort — via greeting cards with inspirational messages and sometimes small gifts — to hospitalized patients in psychiatric wards. Through the program, people donate store-bought or handmade greeting cards to Ponte in which they write notes of encouragement or messages of hope for recovery. Ponte always includes her own recovery message with each card. She then distributes the cards, along with small holiday gifts such as candy, at four hospitals: the Payne Whitney Clinic at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York-Presbyterian Westchester Behavioral Health Center, Lenox Hill Hospital, and the Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital.
“I was inspired to create the program based on some of the things that helped me when I was in the hospital and struggling,” said Ponte. “I’ve always liked kind and thoughtful gestures, however small. I remember how it felt when my parents sent me greeting cards after my last discharge and how my husband once brought me chocolate. All of the patients got excited and came to me because chocolate is not something you have access to in the psych ward.”
Ponte started the program at a hospital she had been treated in herself, and for card donations drew on the support of an online peer support community for people living with mental illness that she began in 2018 called ForLikeMinds, which also has a Facebook community of more than 80,000 followers.
“Most of the people who donate cards have been hospitalized themselves, and so they know what the patients are going through,” says Ponte. “They write motivational messages like ‘You are strong’ and ‘You are brave’ or ‘You can get through this and recover.’ These are messages that people with mental illness need to hear and don’t hear often. There is such a stigma about mental illness, and many people believe a diagnosis of mental illness is a life sentence.”
The program has reached some 4,500 patients since it began, with holiday greeting cards being distributed at the hospitals for Christmas and Hanukkah, Easter and Passover, Valentine’s Day, and Thanksgiving. Whenever possible, Ponte tries to speak directly with patients. (During the COVID-19 pandemic, she had to stop her in-person hospital visits and the program for two months, but she then started to ship monthly packages of cards for distribution). She recently resumed her in-person visits, including holiday visits.
“Usually, I go in and we spread the cards on the table, and the patients pick what they like,” said Ponte. “We all read the messages aloud to each other, and I speak with them about my lived experience, sharing stories about my most challenging times and about what has helped me in recovery.”
Ponte, who joined the Yale faculty in January 2021, worked as a lawyer for five years earlier in her career and became ill while studying for her M.B.A. at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. (She earned her degree from Wharton in 2001.)
Ponte credits Larry Davidson, a Yale professor of psychiatry and co-director of the Program for Recovery and Community Health in the Department of Psychiatry (“PRCH”), with helping to instill in her the confidence she needed to begin her own work as a mental health advocate. She consulted with him while beginning ForLikeMinds, and now works with him and his team at PRCH. She was also a collaborator on two Yale Department of Psychiatry studies before joining the faculty.
While she was originally uncertain whether her Psych Ward Greeting cards program would be a success, the response she has gotten from patients, occupational therapists, and other mental professionals has laid her doubts to rest.
“I’ve had patients tell me that they’ve read a card they received many times over,” said Ponte. “Some have said it was the one thing that gave them any hope. It helps people, especially those who are really struggling, know that they are not alone. There are other people out there who have struggled too, and they are sharing their hope.”
This year, as part of the Christmas card distribution at the hospitals, Ponte also supplied some 400 patients with bird puzzles and thousands of chocolate and peppermint candy pieces.
“We have been so fortunate to be part of the Psych Ward Greeting Cards program here at Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital,” said Cristina Tancreti, manager of behavioral health rehabilitation therapies at the hospital. “Many patients have been truly touched by the personal messages of hope which have been inspirational in recovery.”
One young teenager wrote to Ponte to tell her that she now “sees the world differently” because of the message she received in her card, which helped convince her she is not like the villainous Scar in the Disney movie “The Lion King” but rather a hero like Simba. “I realize that I don’t have to pretend I’m not mentally ill around other people,” she said.
To learn more about the program, visit the Psych Ward Greeting Cards website.