Tag: psychiatric hospital chaplain

Interview with Norman L. Martin, Part Two

In Part Two of the Minty Fresh interview, retired prison, hospital, and mental health care chaplain Norman L. Martin gives the straight truth about handling lies.

Read Part One

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): In addition to your work with psychiatric patients, you also provided pastoral care to prisoners. Neither of those populations has a great reputation for trustworthiness. Do you think that’s fair? Were the people you ministered to generally honest with you?

Norman Martin (NM): Before I began chaplaincy at a state prison, I took two weeks of training in a correctional training center. There were many “Don’ts” and warnings. One thing I learned from the correctional staff at the prison was if you weren’t “had” every so often by something a prison inmate said, you probably were not working. It takes about a year before you learn what not to believe and discover the unwritten rules for security. Of course prisoners or inmates lie. If you work in a prison, the inmates think of you as a duck. What you say? A duck? Well, have you noticed how the feathers on top of the duck are thick and even repel rain? The underbelly is soft. They look for that underbelly, with ploys like: “Chaplain, they really mess up my uniforms in the laundry. Can you get me a little sewing kit, so I can repair them? You can get them at a convenience store.” It seems so simple, an act of ministry to that poor inmate.

No, I didn’t do it, but a few prison staff did. When a security team went through the units, several kits were found. A prison break had occurred years earlier at the state’s most secure prison. The inmates had been able to make (with the sewing kits) patches resembling state correction emblems, which were then sewn onto the blue pajamas the inmates had. That had allowed some murderers to escape from that other state prison earlier.

I would say that certainly some patients in mental hospitals do lie, but not usually with such harmful results. The depressed person can lie about being ready to re-enter society, family, and job. The schizophrenic patient will lie, saying (s)he will take his/her medications when (s)he gets home. The alcoholic/addict will lie about going to AA and drug abuse support groups when they are discharged. They will sign a contract for 90 groups in 90 days and take the list of groups home with them. While some will not stay with the plan, many will.

As a prison clinical chaplain, I valued the counseling sessions with inmates, also my classes about the Bible and spiritual matters. One year there were one hundred baptized, after they confirmed their beliefs. Some were “jailhouse religion” maybe, but for some, it was a life-changing experience.

Group sessions with sexual offenders went well. One rule was that each had to admit and talk about his offense at the first meeting of the group. Most were child sexual offenders. In conducting such a group, the leader has to be careful not to let any member get to the point of “getting off on the telling.” An AA type model is somewhat useful, but for a pedophile there is little hope that they will not offend again, if given the opportunity to do so.

There was much honesty in all populations I worked with. I don’t think comparing trustworthiness to either is good. Frankly, it doesn’t matter all that much if patients or prison inmates are lying to you. Just take everything you hear with the proverbial grain of salt. At the same time listen for what you do not hear. Listen and you will eventually hear at least some of the real person behind the façade. In one-to-one encounters a chaplain often experiences a spiritual moment with client or patient or inmate.

Chaplains operate in difficult areas seldom seen or experienced by others. For that reason, the clinical training and supervised experience given by a certified Clinical Pastoral Education program is a requirement all chaplains should have.

Chaplain Norman L. Martin on faith and finding forgiveness

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.