Professional Lead, Spiritual Health Services
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Monday, May 9, 2022
Briefly describe the role Spiritual Health practitioners play in health-care system, and how they interact with other Allied Health and health-care professionals.
Receiving a new diagnosis or learning to live with a chronic illness or coming to the end of our lives challenges us to sort through a wide variety of thoughts and emotions. Some people have excellent sources of support with which to engage their thoughts and emotions. Others welcome a compassionate listener and companion on their journey. Spiritual Health practitioners are highly skilled listeners and counsellors when it comes to facilitating release of honest emotions. They also help facilitate internal and external sources of resilience, stress management, hope, and meaning and purpose in life. They also help patients and families find peace in the face of circumstances that are beyond their control. While we are often consulted when patients are nearing end of life, there are many other points along the illness trajectory when people benefit from a visit from a Spiritual Health practitioner. Our colleagues in Allied Health are trained to identify spiritual distress in patients. We rely on them to refer us to people who might benefit from our services. We work together with our Allied Health partners as well as patients and families to design the plan of care which is most beneficial to them.
Why is Spiritual Health an important part of overall health?
It is not hard for us to imagine that someone who tries to exercise regularly will be challenged if they eat an unhealthy diet or smoke. It’s not quite as easy to imagine that if we neglect our spiritual selves, we will experience mental health and even physical health challenges. When we pay attention to our spiritual health, we develop greater resilience in the face of life’s unavoidable challenges. Building our spiritual muscles helps us deal with life’s stresses and find those activities and relationships that build a sense of meaning, purpose and joy in life. Nurturing our spiritual health helps to find a sense of peace as we put our need for self-care and care for others in balance with each other.
Though we can describe the amazing benefits of nurturing our Spiritual Health, it is not as easy to measure the effects of neglecting our Spiritual Health as it is to measure the effects of a poor diet or smoking.
What impacts did the pandemic have on Spiritual Health practitioners and the people they serve?
The necessary measure of visitor restrictions had a significant impact on the spiritual health of patients, families and staff. Visitor restrictions highlighted our need to live in connection with one another. Spiritual Health practitioners moved from room to room listening to the loneliness, fear, anger and frustration of patients who were without the usual love and support of family and friends. It was distressing for us to see and hear the extent of their distress. Staff needed support as they were very busy following all the Infection Prevention& Control (IP&C) requirements of patient care. They were glad when we came onto the wards and often directed us to the most distressed patients. Beyond listening and counseling, we responded to the distress by purchasing iPads and virtually connecting patients with families. We were very busy setting up many video chats each day. Sometimes we taught people (by phone) how to use their devices before we set up the chat. During the pandemic, we have been spending much more time with staff. Our admiration for staff who keep giving of their time and energy for the sake of patients soared during the pandemic. We always knew that people who choose healthcare are truly caring and compassionate. We discovered out how deep those traits are embedded in the hearts of healthcare workers. Our hope is that a listening ear, an encouraging word, a 5-, 10- or 15-minute mindful meditation in a quiet place or a prayer helped to keep their spirits up.
What were the challenges in responding to those impacts?
We are few in number and the needs were overwhelming. Spiritual Health services is funded to 75% of optimal staffing. It was particularly demanding to keep up with the requests for video chats and the many requests from staff to visit patients demonstrating signs of spiritual distress.
Is COVID particularly challenging from Spiritual Health perspective. How so?
COVID has challenged all of us, whatever discipline we work in. Front line staff have been challenged physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Administrators have been challenged to know how best to respond to the needs of staff when they need them to work OT or to be deployed in order to meet patient care needs. They are asking this of staff while wishing they did not have to ask. We have seen a lot of burnout and mental health concerns as a result. The challenge for Spiritual Health has been how best to support patients, families and staff when the needs are overwhelming.
What makes the work of Spiritual Health practitioners so important/rewarding?
I once heard a nurse say, in the midst of a particularly long shift, “This is what I signed up for. I’ve just never experienced it before.” The same can be said of Spiritual Health Services during a pandemic. We train to know how to respond during critical incidents and disasters, but we have never experienced a pandemic before. We have discovered that it is truly hard, for everyone, patients, families and staff. At the same time, it has been deeply rewarding for us to work alongside the healthcare team, listening, encouraging and offering guidance as to how to care for one’s spiritual self during times of great stress.
One of the questions we routinely ask staff during an interview is “What are your spiritual practices and why are they important to you?” During this pandemic, we have discovered more than ever why it is important to maintain regular spiritual practices. Our job is to be a calm, loving, listening, guiding presence in the midst of a pandemic. Only by maintaining our own regular spiritual practices can we offer that to others.