SAN DIEGO — One man enjoyed a massage while two women had their hair and nails done. Mellow jazz played on a tape deck while a small group gathered around the hors d'oeuvres table for conversation.
The gathering that had all the trappings of an exclusive beauty salon was actually part of the therapy program offered to patients at the mental health ward at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.
"How one feels about oneself has a definite effect on how you function in society," said Dr. Leighton Huey, medical director of the hospital's mental health unit. "We're using this experience to try to elevate their self-awareness."
During the carefully orchestrated sessions, patients are offered haircuts, massages and tips on improving their dress. Some patients even have their "colors" selected by trained fashion experts.
Those services might seem mundane but they do help many depressed patients "feel better about themselves," according to Melodie Lohr, director of the hospital's expressive arts program.
Scripps has for several months offered the "beauty wellness" program to patients elsewhere in the hospital for a fee. Typically, the service is paid for by individual patients who face more time in a hospital bed--or who want to spruce up before being discharged.
But the mental health ward has gone a step further and incorporated the beauty program into its drug and therapy programs, Lohr said.
Health professionals at other hospitals acknowledged that the common-sense approach probably pays dividends.
"It makes sense that with depression self-image is part of the problem," according to Leslie Satz, a nurse practitioner with the Veterans Administration outpatient program here. Satz plans to initiate a similar--but decidedly lower-key--program later this year at the VA's Mission Valley clinic.
"We're trying to teach depressed patients to dress better and to take better care of their personal appearance," Satz said. "Because, if self-image is a problem, one way to help . . . is to give (that person) a boost."
The VA program will be run by beauty counselors from local J. C. Penney Co. stores. The chain will make the beauty experts available to VA patients to provide make-overs and fashion tips at no cost. They also will provide fabric swatches that patients can use to determine the most appropriate colors to wear.
The VA program, which is aimed at female veterans who are being treated on an outpatient basis for mild psychiatric problems, will not be as in-depth as the program offered by Scripps, according to Satz.
Scripps' "beauty wellness" program has elicited dramatic responses from some patients who did not respond to traditional treatments, Lohr said. For example, two depressed male patients, both of whom had exhibited "robot-like" behavior, surprised Scripps' staff by lining up for massages.
"They had been non-responsive to traditional therapies," Lohr said. But, after the massages, both men "even had their colors done," Lohr said. The men subsequently seemed better able--and more willing--to socialize with other patients and staff members.
Socialization is an important part of the program, Lohr said. Doctors and nurses typically are first in line to get facials, manicures or massages because depressed patients often are hesitant to join in the action, Lohr said.
But patients soon realize that the beauticians are not a threat, and "all of a sudden there's this interaction going on with the other patients," Lohr said. Patients "learn skills that will help them when it comes time" to return to general society, Lohr said.
Scripps' "beauty wellness" program is operated by Fashion on Location, a San Diego-based company that provides on-site beauty care for corporations, film companies and hospitals.
Only a fraction of the firm's in-hospital work, however, is done in mental health wards. For the most part, it provides beauty care to patients who are recuperating after surgery or who are about to be released.
Douglas Gordon, the firm's founder and president, believes "beauty wellness" programs can speed the recovery of patients who have undergone surgery--as well as those who are hospitalized for mental health treatment.
Scripps "has told us that the sessions really break down barriers, and the patients and staff begin bonding together," Gordon said.
Patients being treated for depression at Scripps are not billed separately for services provided by Fashion on Location. Patients elsewhere in the hospital--and other hospitals serviced by the company--are, however, billed by Fashion on Location for haircuts, beauty treatments and the like. A simple haircut and a blow-dry styling would cost about $25.
Susan Blumenthal, a psychiatrist and chief of the behavioral medicine program at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., gives a qualified endorsement to the appearance factor in mental health treatment.