If you or a loved one is staying in a behavioral health setting, there are some important things you need to know to prevent infections. Behavioral health centers, specialty psychiatric hospitals, substance abuse centers, group homes, and correctional institutions are a few of the many environments that can present challenges for infection prevention.

Why is infection prevention important for people within the behavioral health setting?

  • People with mental illness may be at increased risk for infection in the community. This might be related to the type of facility in which they live, as well as the behaviors of the clients themselves, which could lead to an increased risk for infections that could spread to other clients and/or facility personnel.
  • People with behavioral health issues may have a decreased resistance to infection because of age, underlying medical conditions, or substance abuse.
  • Untreated mental illness can have negative short-term and long-term effects by bringing about poor health behaviors, diminished immune functioning, and negative disease outcomes.
  • When people are living closely together, they are more likely to become sick with infections that are spread from person to person.
  • Because clients in a behavioral health setting can have open wounds or be incontinent (of urine or stool), it is especially important for the staff, visitors, and other patients to practice good infection prevention and control techniques.
  • Untreated, or undertreated, mental illness puts the client at increased risk for infection because of risky behavior and an unsafe environment.
    • The lifestyle of illicit drug users leads to higher rates of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, viral hepatitis, and sexually transmitted diseases.
    • Periodic homelessness is common, and lack of personal hygiene, poor nutrition, and exposure to the elements in homeless people make them more prone to infection.
    • Communicable diseases such as lice, scabies, and skin diseases are found frequently in people who are homeless.
    • Cramped living conditions found in shelters are a risk factor for respiratory disease, such as tuberculosis (TB).
  • Not all behavioral health clients are severely mentally impaired or homeless, but those with mental illness have a high risk for infection because of impaired judgment, poor impulse control, reduced self-care, irregular or poor medication compliance, lack of personal hygiene, poor nutrition, exposure to extreme weather, and lack of health or dental care.

What clients residing in a behavioral health setting can do:

  • Cleaning your hands is essential to prevent and control the spread of infection. Wash your hands before you eat and after using the bathroom. It should take at least 20 seconds to thoroughly wash your hands. Because of the increased risk for some clients with a substance abuse history, access to an alcohol-based hand sanitizer will most likely be strictly monitored.
  • Stay involved with your own treatment plan. Become a partner with your healthcare provider in your own treatment.
  • If you have open sores, cover them with a bandage. Do not pick at your sores or remove your bandage(s).
  • When you cough or sneeze, be sure to cover your mouth with the inside of your elbow. Throw away any used tissues and wash your hands afterwards.
  • Don’t share your personal items with other clients.
  • Remind your care providers to wash their hands frequently. It’s okay to ask if a care provider has cleaned their hands before caring for you.
  • If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic for an infection, take the medication exactly how it is prescribed and finish it completely, even if you start to feel better.
  • Follow directions if you are asked to stay in your room.
  • Don’t touch any food that will be eaten by someone else.

What clients can observe/ask:

  • If you have an infection, your caregivers may be wearing protective equipment, like gowns, gloves, or face masks. Make sure they take them off before they leave the room.
  • Make sure that everyone (clients, patients, care providers, and visitors) wash their hands when they enter the room and when they leave the room.
  • Make sure your care provider is wearing gloves if they are removing a dressing. A gown might be necessary if the wound is large. You should not be asked to put on a surgical mask, except possibly in certain instances (e.g., moving to another room).

What family members or other visitors can do:

  • Wash hands before and after each visit.
  • Wear a surgical mask if visiting someone that has an infection with germs that can be spread to others through the air (for example, the flu).
  • Wear a gown and gloves if visiting someone who has a virus or type of bacteria that can be transmitted through direct contact.

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