Edith Smirk is a Uniting Church chaplain at Bentley Health Service. She reflects on her role offering pastoral care to people living with mental illness.
People with mental [illness], like other people, have a need to relate to a god or a philosophical world view that allows them to place themselves and their lives within a larger context. However, for a person who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia this can be problematical for a number of reasons. For one thing, the onset of the disease often occurs during the same period of life when religious and philosophical beliefs are in great flux. For many during the early stages of their illness, they may believe they have been specially chosen by God. When auditory hallucination is experienced, these beliefs are usually reinforced. It is important not to encourage such beliefs, just be present. E Fuller Torrey MD 2006
Jesus listened and told stories. This is something I can do. Just to be there and to listen non-judgmentally is the greatest gift we can give at times. Working in mental health can be very challenging and at the same time very rewarding; I believe for me it has been a true calling. I believe God has in some way been preparing me for this role throughout my life.
Working with the patients brings me such joy. Hearing their stories sometimes touch on my own. Jesus knows our pain, he suffered and was tempted by the devil, he knows our weaknesses and by trusting in the Lord we grow strong. When we reach out to Jesus, he touches our hand, and his hand touches God, which gives us life, love and hope. And it is this hope and love I try to bring to our patients.
I have just been listening to a patient telling me his story while strumming his guitar; this for him was a safe way to share his story and his feelings. Listening is a precious gift. Sometimes all a patient wants is for someone to listen to their story without judging or interrupting. Just to listen – and is that not what Jesus did. He listened, he heard the cry for love and acceptance, he was the good shepherd who cared for his flock.
We have a chapel service each Wednesday, and Joe* was invited to play his guitar and harmonica. Joe had not been to church for many years, but as a child he remembered singing Yes, Jesus loves me.
Joe spent a couple of days rehearsing the hymn he wanted to sing in chapel while playing his guitar. When the time came for Joe to perform, he played beautifully, but was unable to sing as he was very emotional and tears rolled down his face.
He sat down and put his head in his hands, I sensed he was praying and allowed him that space. After the service I went to visit Joe, mainly to see if he was okay.
Joe’s words “I felt the presence of God, it was something I needed, I am sorry I couldn’t sing, I was too emotional.”
Jesus healed the sick (Matthew 8:1-2), Jesus took our suffering on him and carried our diseases (Isaiah 53:4).
Pastoral care is about offering the same generous love, care, nonjudgmental acceptance to all without discrimination. Many people suffering mental illness face discrimination; we offer living water.
*name has been changed