Health care experts have sounded the alarm that COVID-19 exacts not just a physical toll but a mental toll also. During the last two years of the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression have continued to rise, as has the number of Americans who contemplate and complete suicide. Last summer, as the Omicron variant swept the country, the Boston Globe reported on what is called a “crisis on top of a crisis,” with hundreds of patients unable to get psychiatric treatment in over-crowded and under-staffed hospitals. “Many are reeling from the stress and trauma of a pandemic that has upended normal life and stubbornly will not end,” the article read.
I have written elsewhere about the important role chaplains can play in helping people with mental and behavioral health issues. Perhaps more than any other clinical discipline in health care, chaplains have a deep understanding that human beings are more than just their physical ailments. We know that COVID has not only affected people physically and mentally, but spiritually too. Many people no longer see the world as a fundamentally safe place under the eye of a benevolent God who ultimately wants the best for us. Faced with loneliness, isolation, fear, and anxiety, as well as the unfathomable grief that follows sudden, indiscriminate death, many people now struggle to make sense of their experiences during the pandemic and despair of life ever returning to normal again.
“Human suffering on this level is the realm in which we chaplains are particularly well suited to engage,” I wrote last year. We know that chaplains working in a variety of settings are often called upon to supplement the work of mental and behavioral health specialists by providing spiritual care to those who are suffering. But just how well prepared are chaplains to engage with people who are suffering from mental and behavioral health conditions? To find out, the Spiritual Care Association recently conducted a survey to gather information from our members, which can help us identify gaps in knowledge and training among those who are called upon to support patients, family members, and other colleagues experiencing mental and behavioral health issues. The results showed a surprising number of chaplains engaged in this kind of work and a crying need for basic education and training.
The overwhelming majority of chaplains who participated in our survey work in hospital or hospice settings. Just 12% work in specialty inpatient of outpatient mental and behavioral health facilities. Yet a whopping 70% report spending 25% or more of their time interacting with patients and clients around anxiety, depression, fear, anger, life and relationship stresses, loneliness, addiction, suicidal ideation, and spiritual distress. Even more striking was the amount of time they spend supporting their clinical colleagues who are suffering. Almost half of the chaplains surveyed report spending 25% or more of their time supporting colleagues experiencing issues such as emotional distress, burnout, compassion fatigue, and work and home related stresses.
While many of the respondents reported having some sort of specialist training around mental and behavioral health, many others have not. It’s clear that if chaplains are to be successfully integrated into clinical teams working in this increasingly critical arena of health care, they need to be better trained. For example, 72% of our survey respondents want better training in how to identify spiritual issues in mental health and 62% want help with “interventions that work.” Among their top requests for training are the topics of compassion fatigue, emotional/psychological first aid, burn out, mental health conditions, understanding the DSM, and dual diagnoses.
This a cry from chaplains working at the front lines of the mental health pandemic. They are foot soldiers in the battle against the “second pandemic.” To them I say the Spiritual Care Association has heard you and is committed to work diligently in bringing you the resources and training you have asked for.
Reverend Eric J. Hall, DTh, APBCC, is President and Chief Executive Officer of HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, Inc. and the Spiritual Care Association. He is also Chancellor of the SCA University of Theology and Spirituality. Eric also serves as pastor of the Eastchester Presbyterian Church and the Lincoln Academy for early childhood learning. Formerly, he was the founder, President and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.
This article was originally published by the Spiritual Care Association and shared with permission.