I noticed search terms about hospital chaplains cropping up in my stats box, so I thought I would write a post about them. I have written elsewhere about my experiences with chaplains, but I thought it would bear repeating! Firstly,
What Does A Chaplain Do?
- A chaplain in any hospital (psychiatric or otherwise) is there to provide a listening ear to any patient, of any or no faith. They can help you with your feelings about being in hospital, and help you make sense of what is happening to you – in a religious or non-religious context.
- They can give you resources and specific guidance about your own faith, whatever that may be. You may find that the staff chaplain/s in a particular hospital are not members of your particular denomination or religion, but they can provide materials and find for you a suitable person from your own faith. Many chaplaincies have, for example, Roman Catholic, Church of England and Free Church chaplains on staff, but will also have a Rabbi, an Imam, and similar who can be contacted should you wish.
- Depending on what religion is dominant in a hospital, chaplains may provide religious services – this will include a Christian service, but in the mental hospital I was in there was also a Muslim service, as there were many patients who were Muslim. They can also provide you with a Bible, Quran, Torah or other religious book as well as prayer mats if needed.
- They also will help staff to understand any particular religious needs you have – for example if you need to pray at a certain time, or cannot eat certain foods. They can intercede for you with the staff if you wish.
- They also serve the staff of a hospital, providing them with spiritual nourishment and a listening ear.
Hospitals generally have a chapel, where services are held and where prayer and reflection can take place. They may or may not be Christian-themed – many hospitals also have quiet rooms for those who do not wish to be in a Christian religious place. You do not have to be of a particular faith nor do you have to have any faith if you want to use these rooms.
For those of us in mental hospitals, the situation is not the same as for “normal” hospitals. You may not be able to go to the chapel unaccompanied, and you may not wish to go when accompanied by a nurse. In the hospital I was in, (Christian) services were held on a Monday evening, and we were accompanied and supervised by the chaplain and a Baptist minister, who held the services. We were also within the locked department, although not on the ward itself.
I can only speak about the services I have myself attended. We held an informal style of worship, with a few, simple songs, and short readings. The service was tailored to the impaired concentration levels many of us had, and included much prayer. We all sat round in a circle and it was very relaxed, and relaxing. One thing I was worried about – being a bit unchurched at the time – was whether I would be asked to speak, to pray, something in the service. I was not. You could join in if you wished, and say something (or run around the room shouting “superman!”) if you wished, but there was no force. They also handed out New Testaments for those who wanted one. It was a pleasant time off the ward, and many attended who were not Christian. We had communion once when I was there (I was there for three weeks) given by a Church of England priest to all who wanted it (and which did not, unusually for the CofE, include alcoholic wine).
I found the chaplain, Steve, very helpful. He was a – and I mean this positively – normal guy. He understood mental illness and he did not, not ever, blame us for our suffering, but treated it almost as a normal part of being in a broken world. You could say anything to him – he certainly gave off the aura of being unshockable. He also wasn’t sentimental, and would say if he thought you were saying something unkind, or wrong. His function as chaplain was helpful to the whole ward, Christian and non-Christian in that everyone talked to him, as a responsible person but who wasn’t staff in the way the nurses and doctors were. You could tell him about the petty frustrations which end up meaning so much when you’re stuck in hospital, and he would tell you whether they were justified and give you some guidance as to how to deal with, for instance, that annoying other patient. Just because he was a Christian chaplain did not mean that he spiritualised everything in sight, but gave plain honest advice.
I found using the chaplains very helpful. Both because, although I had faith I had drifted away, and they were able to fold me closer to Christ than I had been before, and because it was nice to speak to someone outside the whole hospital-niche. I liked the simple services, which spoke to me, and a group of the patients and I used to read the Bible to each other. In fact I liked the ministers and chaplain that I saw so much that I ended up joining the church to which they were associated! It was the first church I had regularly attended and I found it wonderfully attuned to helping people with mental illness. I realise I was very lucky in my church, who accepted me when I was almost incapacitated with depression, even after leaving hospital, and who supported me as I became more well.
Talking to a chaplain doesn’t have to be a commitment to anything they believe in – you can explore, or just talk to someone who understands, but stands outside the system. Going to a service can be wonderful, and not just because it gets you off the ward for a time! I found being in hospital, although I felt absolutely rotten, a good spiritual experience, really, though it seems strange to say that now. Chaplains do excellent work, and I would dearly love to join them someday.