May 3, 2018•1,004 words
I serve as a "Clinical Chaplain" in the context of inpatient psychiatric and substance abuse treatment units. Practically speaking, this means I spend most of my days with individuals of all ages (from very young children to very old adults) who face the daily realities of mental illness. It's a pretty challenge and unique job and, honestly, I love it. On an almost weekly basis, when I introduce myself to others and the conversation eventually tuns to what I "do for a living", my response typically elicits perplexed stares or exclamations of "Oh, God! That sounds hard!" So I thought I would offer a glimpse into what I actually do every day. Here's a day in the life of a psychiatric chaplain:
5:30 am - Wake, exercise, walk the dog, pray, read, and get ready for the day. I typically read the texts for morning prayer from the Book of Common Prayer and a poem or short story before I leave the house.
6:15 am - Depart for the office. I sometimes take the bus from Raleigh and other times I drive to the hospital. Either way, my commute usually takes about an hour and I like to get to work before most of my colleagues so I can get a jump on some of the administrative aspects of the day. If I take the bus, I'll spend some time reading or listening to a podcast. Sometimes I'll meditate using the "Calm" or "Buddify" apps.
7:30 am - Arrive at the office and process emails, pages, etc. This is my way of "easing into" the day and I like that it's typically calm and quiet.
8:00 am - Morning spiritual care team "huddle" to see how the overnight on-call shift went and discuss any pertinent info about the coming day.
8:30 am - Finish processing emails and plan spirituality groups (more on that later).
9:30 am - By this time (ideally) I am usually out the door and headed onto the patient care units. Depending on the day, I will attend treatment team meetings, lead spirituality groups, or attend to one-to-one patient visitation. I try to visit a minimum of five patients each day and leave space for patient requests, meetings, groups, etc. This is the point in the day when things start to get really interesting. As I mentioned above, I serve inpatient psychiatric units, which sounds complicated - and honestly, it is. What it means in practice is that all of my patients are hospitalized for concerns related to mental illness and substance abuse. Each day I encounter people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, addiction, and a number of other diverse concerns. What is the same for nearly all of them is that each of them feels some connection to "spirituality". I come from a Christian background but not all of my patients do. Though my theology is pretty orthodox (I affirm the historic ecumenical creeds, for instance, and attend a rather traditional Baptist church), my work is not evangelistic in nature. My job is to offer spiritual care and emotional support to patients and this often means simply connecting them to resources for practicing their own, pre-existent spiritual practices. For Muslim patients, I will provide a Qur'an and a prayer rug. For Mormon patients, I provide a copy of the the Book of Mormon. For Catholic patients, I ensure their name is on the Catholic patient census so that they can be visited by a priest or recieve communion from a lay eucharistic minister. For all patients as well I provide opportunities for them to explore and grapple with the realities of mental illness and how their faith or spiritual practice intersects with that and informs their day-to-day life. During this time, I may also lead spirituality groups which provide a community setting for discussing the realities of mental illness, substance abuse, and the ways that spirituality can aid in the recovery and coping process. This is not a "devotional" group although we do often have deep conversations about faith and related topics such as prayer, worship, etc. This is really an open forum for exploring spirituality and, I find, it helps patients to understand the differences between their own beliefs and practices and those of others.
12:00 pm - By noon, I have typically visited two to three patients and led a spirituality group with between five and fifteen patients. This time also includes writing chart notes documenting each of these visits and consulting with the "care team" regarding details relevant to patients' treatment or advocating for patients' religious practices in the treatment context. At around noon, I try to take a walk around the hospital and get outdoors for about thirty minutes. I use this time get some much-needed sun and clear my head. My patients often carry with them stories of complex trauma and, honestly, hearing and attending to these experiences can be a little draining - no matter how much I might enjoy the work, it's still exhausting. Around 12:30 I'll have lunch with some colleagues or with the child treatment unit (typically on Tuesdays).
1:00 pm - This time is usually reserved for meetings, planning, catching up on charting, and consultation with colleagues.
2:00 pm - I'm only 3/4 time at this point which, despite the lower pay scale, has its benefits. Namely, I'm out of the office most days by 2:00pm. My bus departs at 2:30 so I usually read, reflect, or journal about my day to clear my head and be ready to be present when I get home. At 2:30 I catch the bus and am usually home by 3:30 to pick up the kids, head home, and start dinner.
That's what "a day in the life" of this psychiatric chaplain looks like. The work is often difficult and involves offering spiritual care, counsel, and emotional support to patients facing the challenges of mental illness, substance abuse, and trauma. It's hard but also very rewarding and, honestly, I don't think there is anywhere else I'd rather serve.