I wrote this article for ‘The College of Healthcare Chaplains’ (my professional body). Writing it was cathartic for me.
What is mental health chaplaincy like in this crisis? The answer depends largely on your Trust although there are some common themes of being (largely) stood down to work from home, the loss of chaplaincy volunteers, being pulled more into staff support and discovering the delights of Zoom/MS teams etc. There is a sense of waiting for the mental health crisis to come, coupled with personal feelings of uncertainty and disconnection.
My experience is perhaps untypical with many in the College of Healthcare Chaplains: the ‘patch’ I cover is around a hundred miles wide and 5O deep, covers two national parks and there are several smaller units but I reckon I work around 60% of my time in community settings. I don’t have a base or office as such: this is an advantage in normal working life- I get to mix with an incredibly wide range of people & have no horizontal surfaces on which to stack superfluous paper. In this crisis, however, it means that I am a risk as I travel to so many settings, so our whole team is largely working from home. On occasion, if a request is supported by a modern matron or ward manager, team members have been able to go on a ward, but in full PPE.
Covid 19 has hit a couple of wards where I work and the death rate has been high in those wards. I knew everyone who died by name, but the option to go in and support staff is not there as it was. Phone calls are good, but you have to be aware of your own need to be needed and what would actually help- to answer the phone when a ward is working at an intensity like never before can be intrusive. Whilst a personalised email can add to the tsunami of electronic communications, it can be read when the staff member choses to do so.
Our teams have worked at a variety of ways to keep in touch: emails to locality managers/ward managers detailing our availability, heavy use of the Trust’s internal communications, extending times that we are available outside of our normal on call system and the setting up of one phone number to cover the whole of our (8am-8pm on call service). However some people struggle with any kind of contact via phone: they just have to know that we are available if they want to access us. In general, I find phone calls more draining than face to face contact.
We’ve also started to use more of our Trust’s software to enable virtual contacts. This is hard in a rural area where bandwith is an issue and tech savviness is as well. I live in a rural area and have had to work from different rooms to try and get the best modem signal: not easy when my wife works from home and I have two teenage children!
Like many mental health chaplaincy teams, we’ve produced resources- freely borrowing and adapting from other teams across the country. Some has been for our online recovery college, some for staff support and more poignantly other stuff for staff to support those nearing the end of life and those affected by it.
We are being pulled more into staff support. More often than not, this is informal and reflects an existing long term relationship: I’ve had phone calls from staff on their day off. However, we are going to be pulled into this more formally which is good: it is codifying the existing and long term informal relationship that we have with employee support.
For me, this has also been a time of disconnection and soul searching: I have lost many of the parts of the role that I love and give me life. Some will return, but I’ve a feeling that the new normal will mean that the world has forever changed and I (and chaplaincy in mental health settings will have to adapt) Now seems to be a time to do the job under these new constraints, dig deep into my own spiritual tradition, rest as far as possible, reflect and wait for the coming mental health crisis that will inevitably follow as people become tired after the first flush of intense activity, lockdown continues and then- when it is lifted- the things that have been carried can no longer be carried.