Retired chaplain Norman L. Martin has had an incredibly varied career, having provided pastoral support in prison, hospital, and psychiatric facility settings. He also worked as a college professor, pastor, drug and alcohol counselor, and pastoral counselor in a medical center behavioral unit. He’s been married to his wife Alice for almost fifty years. They have two children and two grandchildren. Part One of the Minty Fresh interview…
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): You served in both general hospitals and a psychiatric hospital. What were the special challenges of caring for people who had mental illnesses? How did that work differ from your work with people whose main ailments tended to be physical?
Norman Martin (NM): I find that I can only answer that by giving examples. I could have written, “Well there are huge differences and some much the same.”
Of course one of the special challenges of caring for people in the psychiatric setting was getting the patients to take their medications when they were sent home after being stabilized. A challenge for me as chaplain/pastoral counselor was to honor the patients’ understanding of their faith, even when their beliefs were detrimental to their mental health. Often severely depressed patients would express the belief that they had sinned so badly that they could not be forgiven by God, exhibiting a level of hopelessness so great that it threatened their very being. Of course suicide prevention measures were put in place, but at this level patients were often too depressed to even try. As the medication for depression began to take effect and with talk therapy, they could voice their thoughts more clearly. I need to take this time to let readers know most of patients I encountered believed in the Christian God. There were times when a patient during my spiritual group sessions would state that they did believe God had forgiven them, but they hadn’t forgiven themselves (hanging on to a reason for depression). I would chide them a bit by saying: “So you are higher than God, He forgives you but you are stronger in not forgiving yourself?” Unfair? It got them thinking.
Many, many bi-polar patients found comfort in their faith. The stronger the faith, the better hope for them. There is a high suicide rate among people suffering from this illness. More than one told me if it weren’t for God they wouldn’t be living.
One told me that if it weren’t for God she would not have been able to hold on to a bit of control to keep herself from losing it all.
I never forgot the lesson from my clinical supervisor, that even if a belief (especially religious) were used as just an unsteady crutch, don’t kick it out until something better was established. I had one patient tell me that he had started out of the house to shoot himself in the yard when he remembered that he would go to hell for taking his life. Would it have been wise to argue theology on that belief? Not on your life or his.
There was the elderly lady who was brought in to the Psych. Unit by her family. She kept “bugging” them about visiting and talking with angels. In counseling with her, I found out there were multi-generations of family living together, and her going out on her porch to rest and talk to the angels was a real comfort to her. As usual with patients talking to voices, I asked if the voices were threatening, “Oh no,” she would say, “They tell me good things.” I don’t remember what she said they said but the voices were not dangerous to her or others. Her family had no complaints about her conduct other than her telling them about the voices. It’s not in any manual that I know of, but I counseled her to enjoy her meeting with the angels, just to be careful who she told about it. She wasn’t admitted again during the years I was there.
In the medical setting I found how certain religious beliefs were detrimental to patients’ physical as well as their spiritual/mental health. One hospital patient leaps to mind. She was sitting up cross-legged in the middle of the bed. When I introduced myself as chaplain, she told me that Christians are not supposed to get sick, for sickness is a sin. That belief was not giving her any comfort, but it was her barrier to receiving help. She wasn’t ready to discuss it further. At that time a California evangelist was preaching such stuff and having a lot of converts.
A number of times when I introduced myself to a patient their first response was, “Are you saved? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” I would say, “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, sir.” Get that out of the way and make a pastoral visit.
Chaplaincy in a general hospital and in a mental health setting was different in that the stay in a general hospital was usually much shorter and the issues were different. The chaplain was called on more to give comfort to the seriously ill and the families that waited with them. I served five years at a fairly small hospital in an area which contained a group of people who had come down from the mountains many years before to work in a cotton mill. They had maintained their culture. They believed in the whole family “sitting up with the sick”. That meant crowding our small waiting area outside the ICU. I quickly learned what to expect when their loved one died. It would be a loud explosion of grief. This is one of the times when the physician, who told the bad news, would quickly turn everything over to the chaplain and leave forthwith. I was thankful to God that these folks respected ministers and calming prayer. I learned to take note of the younger children, for adults in the throes of grief would not think of the young. I made sure they were “noticed.” I would advise all chaplains not to forget the young griever.
Fear of dying during surgery would sometimes be spoken of to the nurses, and I would be called. If, in my opinion, the patient’s fears were such that the surgeon should know, I told him. I don’t know of any time that the operation proceeded without the physician conversing with the patient first; sometimes surgery was cancelled. One time a woman with an abusive husband had expressed fears but went ahead with surgery. She died on the table. Her written funeral service was found in the drawer by her bed after her death. The staff and physicians needed ministry after that. I learned later that she had talked with an employee and stated that maybe if she died, her husband would straighten up. Communication, people communication!
During my Chaplaincy at the general hospital, I conducted research and wrote my doctoral project entitled: Ministering to Health Care Persons as He or She Experiences Patient Death. Staff members who had not come to terms with their own mortality had more trouble. Also if they had unresolved grief issues, this also could be a problem. Seventy-five percent of the nurses I gave a questionnaire to believed in God and in heaven. It seemed to give them more strength in dealing with patient death.
Sometimes when people talk about visions and conversations, these can be symbolic and point to deeper levels. I wonder what the angels represented, and what if anything did they have to do with the people the patient lived with? i wonder what she thought the angels were telling her?
That really is an excruciating issue when a belief increases spiritual distress. That shows that religion can be a negative as well as a positive force. I think all a chaplain can do in that case is to ask lots of questions about it, and possibly very gently suggest an alternative belief that could still offer an explanation for their plight. Another thing to consider is that some people would rather have a negative belief than no belief at all, in order to feel that illness is not purely random. -Chaplain Karen
Thank you Chaplain Karen for your comments. About the lady and her angels; “she talked to the angels and read her Bible on the porch away for the noise in her home. In the twenty plus years since her short stay in the Behavioral medicine unit, I don’t remember what the angels were telling her but they were hopeful, encouraging things according to what I remember.
In the spirituality groups I did, it was insightful how patients could come to a clearer understanding of the spiritual by the group experience.
Thank you, Mindy for posting by interview. Norm Martin
My pleasure. These interviews have been fascinating for me.