“The need for spiritual care has never been greater”

Categories: Care and People & Places.

Karen Murphy is a chaplain and spiritual lead at Weston Hospicecare in Weston-super-Mare, as well as the President of the Association of Hospice and Palliative Care Chaplains. Here she explains that spiritual care is needed more than ever as a result of the pandemic.

This year’s events have demonstrated that the need for skilled, experienced spiritual care leads in healthcare has never been greater. In the summer a UN Rapporteur identified the role of chaplains as one of the unseen supports of the pandemic so far. This prompted a piece on BBC News24 in which chaplains from across traditions and countries spoke about their role.

I was also interviewed and given the opportunity to raise the profile and value of chaplaincy at the time. Chaplaincy and spiritual, pastoral and religious support has been highlighted as one of the growing needs of patients, families and staff in healthcare settings, where pressures and restrictions have made an already intolerable situation more distressing.

If religious affiliation is declining, why are chaplains needed in healthcare settings? What is our role? Surely people can get the support they need from their own faith communities? These are questions members of our association have been facing, and try to answer in the face of potential cuts to services and personnel.

Spiritual, holistic care

I became a hospice chaplain in 1999, working for a Sue Ryder hospice, in a part-time capacity. This hospice had never had a paid post previously. When I left to take up my current full time post, the advert for my replacement became full time and spiritual care took its place more fully among the various fields gathered round the multi-disciplinary table.

Over the past 20 years, the shape of chaplaincy has changed dramatically in hospice settings, moving away from specific religious-based appointments to a much broader understanding and delivery of spiritual care. Whilst NHS Trusts continue to appoint chaplains based on the demographic of their area, hospices have moved forward tremendously in appointing trained people offering holistic care.

The argument of losing chaplaincy posts due to reduced religious need is damaging to patient and family care. The majority of patients I see will begin a conversation with the phrase ‘I’m not religious but…’ A conversation will invariably continue along the lines of exploring fears, worries, and existential questions that are not familiar.  Questions arise about mortality, hope, purpose and meaning that are hard for people to face and understand.

The need for chaplains

Spiritual care leads are the people who have the skills and experience to be alongside patients at these significant points of their illness and impending death. This is not simply about emotional needs, but something resounding deeply in the core of a person’s being.

Recently we had an admission of a patient who was suicidal, depressed and desperate to die. Not a religious man at all, but the support of chaplaincy team members made a life changing difference to this person, as we gently listened to his questions and story. ‘I wouldn’t have told that to a doctor’, he said. ‘I needed to tell someone who could bear the facts and not judge me’.

Clearly, any member of the multi-disciplinary team could have offered non-judgmental listening, it’s what we do, but for this patient and many others, it makes a difference if the person hearing the patient’s heartfelt stories has the experience to know how to listen from a spiritual perspective.

The demands of the pandemic

The pandemic has raised so many spiritual concerns for patients, families and staff working in palliative care. A major survey by ERICH (European Research Institute for Chaplaincy in Healthcare) of healthcare chaplaincy in Europe, USA, Australia and Africa, revealed the extent to which chaplaincy has been an effective presence in containing many of the tensions that have arisen during this time. The findings of the survey will be published in the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counselling in the New Year.

What has become increasingly clear is that in organisations where there is a clear understanding of the chaplain’s role and function, their support has made a significant impact, especially in regards to staff support. The Chief Executive of one hospice recognised that the support of the chaplaincy team had prevented at least five staff members needing to take long term sickness leave.

Whilst the pandemic has forced hospices to consider their financial constraints and viability of their services, reducing spiritual care provision in its modern form is a retrograde step, and will be detrimental to the people we care for.

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