Chris Levison

Health and wellbeing involves more than basic physical and psychological need. This has in part been recognised since the inception of the NHS by Chaplains being part of the health service community.

The Chaplain's job is essentially to respond to the complex needs of patients and staff, to be a skilled sensitive listener, to offer friendship and support to people of any and every faith, community or belief group, and to nurture the spiritual and human resources within people which enable the healing process to happen.

“The Chaplain's job is essentially to respond to the complex needs of patients and staff. . . .”

Over recent years there have been significant changes in the understanding of spiritual care in Scotland which is seen as the business of everyone who works in the NHS – the need to treat all individuals with respect and with cultural competence, whatever their faith, belief group or life stance. Present departmental policy is based on extensive consultation with faith communities and wider groups such as the Humanist Society of Scotland.

Religious care is given in the context of shared beliefs and behaviours. Spiritual care is person centred and makes no assumptions or judgements. The two are related, but not identical, although spiritual care is often used as the umbrella and inclusive term.

Many people who do not belong to groups still have spiritual needs: searching for meaning through their illness, asking the questions 'why?' or 'why me?' when illness strikes. When faced with their own mortality, people often begin asking fundamental questi ons about self-worth and values, relationships and other fundamental issues. Treating people in a holistic way should be the norm in a national health service.

Health Boards are now the bodies responsible for spiritual care in their area, working in partnership with local faith and belief groups. Chaplains are not necessarily ordained members of the clergy but come from a variety of backgrounds. In January 2007 all full-time Chaplains became Health Service employees and thus full members of the healthcare team – specialists in their own field, supporting patients, carers and staff as appropriate.

They conduct acts of worship, rites, sacraments, funerals and weddings, where appropriate. Often they liaise with local faith or belief groups and facilitate visits of those pastors or representatives who are asked for by the patient.

They also provide spiritual care for staff. It is impossible to maintain a caring attitude and not be affected by suffering which is unrelenting in front line work with patients. How staff are cared for and supported makes a huge difference to their ability to continue working with sensitivity and compassion.

Forward looking work with health in society points to areas where the need is far deeper than merely for medicine. Problems such as alienation, depression, obesity and sexually transmitted diseases are major challenges in the future.

Health is a broad subject which relates to ideas of self-worth, hope, meaning, relationships, acceptance, equality, even justice and peace. Clearly we need to be addressing both the causes and the symptoms which bring people low. A competent spiritual care service is one very necessary element in a whole person approach to health and wellbeing.

Chris Levison – Healthcare Chaplaincy Training and Development Officer and Spiritual Care Advisor

Chris Levison

A chaplain was recently called to a transplant unit in a large hospital where a patient was terribly worried about whether he deserved a transplant from another person. He was plagued by guilt and not a little fear. The Chaplain was able, by gently questioning and listening, to remind the person of the value he was to his grand-children and the rest of his family. The patient regained an element of peace and the operation went well. We can never really know differences such support can make to recovery – but clearly they can be of untold value to the individual patient.