The Spirit of Healthcare

I shouldn’t have been surprised when my manager’s manager flew into a furious rage a couple of years ago over a small section of a report I’d written on a service evaluation survey. In response to a client’s comment expressing a need for ‘more religious support’, I’d attempted to show how our homeless service could do more to take into consideration clients’ spiritual needs.

As a Christian working for a secular organisation, I have no wish to use or abuse my position by ‘proselytising’ or Bible-bashing at work (nor to do the latter anywhere else!), and my comment in the report was simply a reflection on one client’s wishes (whatever he meant by that) in the context of holistic care.

Our Western society is dogged by cynicism, scepticism and negativism – and no more so than when it comes to matters of faith, religion and spirituality. The dominant secularist (and often prejudiced) agenda often ignores the vast contribution made by faith communities (i.e. mainly churches) to society, week in, week out, and to blame religion for many of the world’s ills. The narrow-minded atheist also pits an unnecessary battle between theism and science…

…whereas the thinking person, atheist or Christian, acknowledges that it’s people and institutions with power, not religion, that cause wars, and sees no conflict between science and belief in God. But that’s another blog post…

Secularists, under the ‘new atheism’ banner, would rid the world of religion, claiming its harmfulness – sometimes out of fear of religion and faith, simply because they don’t understand it, in the same way that ignorance breeds racism and homophobia.

Healthcare and spirituality are inextricably and historically intertwined. But the manager in question had no clinical background. His reaction was founded in ignorance, probably of faith and spirituality, certainly of healthcare.

At this point we could discuss the faith-based history of hospitals and hospices and indeed the organisation I work for. We could also look at research that shows how people who belong to a church tend to have lower rates of ill health – how belonging to a (faith) community bestows proven psychological benefits and promotes altruism.

But rather than tread the well-worn path, however useful that may be, for the sake of freshness I prefer to speak from my own experience, so here are some examples…

First of all, my U-turn from a hedonistic life on the road, to a career as a nurse (see My Life’s Soundtrack) was the direct result of a fairly dramatic conversion to Christianity. An inner change effected a passion to promote the physical, social and spiritual health of others.

Then, early on in my nurse training, I was taught that spirituality was an important yet often neglected part of patient assessment and nursing care.

That spirituality was not just about whether the patient ticked ‘C of E’ on their hospital admission form, but about what gives meaning and purpose and values and joy and hope to that person’s life.

How they feel about death and dying.

How they deal with their own suffering and illness.

What their longings and aspirations are.

And also whether they have a faith or religion in the conventional or unconventional sense, and how they express that faith.

These are spiritual (and psychological) considerations which every healthcare professional needs to be aware of when dealing with patients and clients. And yet, many professionals shy away from such questions for fear of the unknown, being unsure – as many are – of their own spirituality and beliefs, let alone those of others.

Adrift in their agnosticism.

This neglect is further magnified in the world of homeless services, in which clients are hardly ever asked about faith and spirituality, let alone encouraged to engage with their religion and attend places of worship, if they have faith, or to explore their spirituality1.

An uber-secularist world which sometimes goes so far as to actively discourage such discussion, to the detriment of its service users. So much for person-centred care.

On one occasion, as a student nurse on Coronary Care Unit (a small open plan unit where everyone could hear everyone else’s conversation), a patient asked me question after keen, searching question about my faith, and I found myself speaking in some detail about the good news of Jesus and what that meant to me. I felt quite trepidatious (OK, I know it’s not a real word, but it should be) about being overheard by other staff and patients, and wondered if I’d be disciplined for ‘proselytising’.

To my relief and amazement, in my final assessment on the placement, the staff nurse who was my mentor praised me for delivering spiritual care, and again emphasised how often spiritual needs are neglected. The patient made a full recovery, but being hospitalised with a cardiac condition, had perhaps faced questions and fears in his own mind about death, dying and suffering. And perhaps I was the right person at the right place and time for him.

Another time during my training, in the anaesthetic room, I was alone with a patient about to undergo surgery. She seemed especially anxious and yet somehow I ‘sensed’ that she was a Christian and might appreciate prayer. She confirmed this was the case, we prayed, and her anxieties were significantly allayed. Later on, she found out my name and wrote me an effusive letter of appreciation for the difference this encounter had made to her in facing her op. Her spirituality was integral to her healthcare, recovery and wellbeing.

I love being a Christian – for all kinds of reasons. One thing I like about Jesus is that he was (is) such a renegade. Always breaking the rules. Not for the sake of it, but to show us a better way. I relate to that.

Not keeping the Sabbath. Because there are people who need healing, affirmation and love every day of the week. A better way.

Not condemning a woman who’d been unfaithful. So that both she and her accusers could learn mercy and a new way of life.

Hanging out with sex workers, outcasts and underdogs, while lambasting religious leaders. Setting the record straight.

The messiah being tortured and executed. That’s not meant to happen, is it? Breaking the rules for our freedom and healing.

The way of Jesus, unlike religion, has no rules. Except perhaps the ‘rule’ of love. Love God, and your neighbour as yourself.

Loving yourself is definitely not a rule, but an inevitable response to being loved. When we’ve received the affirmation and acceptance that Jesus offers, we start to forgive and love ourselves. That kind of self-love, self-worth, changes our attitudes to our bodies and minds, as well as to other people.

There are no rules against smoking, booze or drugs for Christians. No rules against chocolate, all-you-can-eat-breakfasts, espressos or over-working.

Smoking and getting drunk AREN’T ‘against my religion’. Couldn’t resist putting that in BOLD type.

And yet…

I stopped smoking about the time I came to faith in Jesus. Tobacco, that is. Cannabis and all other illicit drugs came to an end for me a bit later. I haven’t wanted to get drunk (or been drunk) since before I first experienced the Holy Spirit about 25 years ago. It would be no big deal if I had been drunk – the point is that Jesus gave me a better way.

I do have my vices (let’s not discuss my coffee habit or chocoholism), but my life is pretty healthy. I have self-worth. I care about my life, because I know my worth to my Father. My spirituality is inseparable from my physical and mental health.

When my homeless and vulnerably housed clients find self-giving love, whether from God or others, they find a reason to care for themselves. They’re less likely to be suicidal or to self-harm. A higher power or higher purpose gives them a reason to live and change. Spirituality cannot be divorced from health, especially mental and emotional health.

Nathan Feb12 004a

Moving from my own experience to an excellent and much-needed recent study…

Clients – not support workers or managers – initiated a spirituality group at a homeless service in London, which they felt lacked the opportunity to explore issues of spirituality and faith.

This client-inspired group then led to research conducted by (self-confessed atheist) Carwyn Gravell on behalf of secular thinktank Lemos & Crane.

This much-needed, much-welcomed study, Lost and Found, reports on the results of 75 in-depth interviews with homeless service users on the subject of faith and spirituality.

Clients “described faith and spirituality as being a significant aspect of their personal lives and identity, contributing to their wellbeing, helping them to recover from mental health or drug and alcohol problems or to pursue a future free from offending”.

Spirituality inseparable from health.

Over 70% described themselves as religious or as having been religious at some stage in their lives. Many saw themselves as spiritual in a broader sense.

Most service users appreciated the opportunity to express their inner selves and their own unique responses to their profound experiences of loss. One interviewee felt the research indicated that the organisation was taking him seriously as a whole person with an individual identity, and not just a mechanical service user.

This thorough, objective report confirms what I and others already knew and has given that knowledge substance and evidence. For those of us who long to move on from the narrow-minded, secularistic-worldview-dominated service delivery model, to give truly holistic care, this report is welcome news.

My manager’s manager – the one who had the tantrum – has left the organisation I work for. That obstacle to holistic care of my homeless clients has gone.

And I’m looking forward to discussing Lost and Found with my line manager and colleagues, exploring how we can implement its findings.

Whatever form that takes, it certainly won’t involve conducting religious services or anything specifically ‘Christian’, but will entail working with clients where they’re at and towards where they want to be.

And I’m so glad that God is able to meet with people where they are. And will be found by those who are honestly searching.

I was thinking about how to finish this post and I don’t actually have a witty or flippant comment as I usually do. Maybe that’s because this is a subject so close to my heart.

If you have any views on the subject of spiritual care in the world of healthcare or social support, I’d be very grateful if you could share this post and/or comment below, as appropriate.

Thank you, and blessings for reading this!

1. Lost and Found: faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people (Lemos & Crane 2013)

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One thought on “The Spirit of Healthcare

  1. […] me, I’m happy to live it out in love as best I can. That includes the work that I do (see The Spirit of Healthcare) and writing creatively, to express this love to those who don’t claim to have faith in Christ. I […]

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