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Hospital psychiatric wards long have been considered places where personal dignity and respect are checked at the door, and where ­relatives of patients are left to fend for themselves.

Administrators at Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis want to change that.

As part of a broader effort to offer more humane treatment, the hospital opened a new center Tuesday that will give psychiatric patients and their families a place to connect with local treatment options and talk openly and non-judgmentally about mental illness.

Located on the skyway above HCMC's acute care psychiatric unit, which handles about 11,000 patient visits a year, the new Psychiatry Family Resource Center has an extensive library on mental health conditions and volunteers trained to work with families of individuals going through a mental health crisis. Administrators said they hope the center will help demystify psychotherapy, while countering the sense of isolation that many families feel when visiting a loved one in the hospital.

In many cases, patients undergoing treatment are too ashamed of their symptoms to see visitors. At other times, patients may consider family members a threat, particularly if it was a relative who brought them in for treatment. Until now, relatives and friends had nowhere to turn at HCMC if they were turned away but wanted to share their experiences or get more information on treatment options.

"This will be a space where people can talk about mental illness as openly as they talk about diabetes or any other health condition," said Megen Coyne, senior director of psychiatry at HCMC.

"Patients and families should know there are things you can do to make yourself better ... and that you don't have to go back to your car and cry by yourself" after visiting the hospital.

The center, funded with $220,000 in private donations, is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Popkin, former chief of psychiatry at HCMC. Popkin, who retired last year, got the idea more than a decade ago after visiting Massachusetts General in Boston, which also has a family resource center for psychiatric patients. Researchers have found that the involvement of relatives can reduce the severity of a mental illness and improve recovery by helping patients stick with treatment and manage their behaviors. Similarly, disengagement by family members can lead to further anxiety and result in more emergency and inpatient unit visits.

"We need to make sure families are welcome, because they play a critical role in a person's recovery," said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota. "You can't go into this journey ... without a road map ... and this resource center will help people find that road map."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres