By Kathleen Hagerty, CSJ, MA
In 1998, when I came to the Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in Boston, MA, my hope was to minister to the mentally ill and to be able to integrate spiritual care into the life of our three locked units as an interfaith chaplain.
Believing that our clients had the capacity for and an interest in spiritual care, I developed programs that assisted them in discussing their spiritual or religious concerns as well as offered opportunities for quiet time for prayer and reflection. My hope was that they might deepen their relationship with God and one another.
In this article I would like to share a program that I think has been both successful and meaningful to both clients and staff.
Initially, the spirituality group focused on a particular religious or spiritual concern and a discussion would follow. Slowly, our clients were able to articulate some of their religious beliefs as well as attitudes toward spirituality or religion. This interest as well as openness to quiet, reflective music developed into one 10-minute period of reflection on each unit once a week during the community meeting.
The focusing time at the beginning of the day provided clients with a motivation for centering their day in a reflective way. Clients were encouraged to reflect on their “best self,” Higher Power or God. In this way, no spiritual or religious belief of any client was violated. As this focusing time continued on our units, clients grew to value the quiet music and prayer and often requested it during the community meeting.
Relationship is Key
Relationship was the basis of this undertaking. The clients on our units came to know me and other staff members and built bonds with our personnel over the years. This program was only as effective as its basis in relationship.
Spiritual care is all about relationship with one’s best self, others, God or a Higher Power. For this reason, we attempted to build on human relationships and to engage clients in a religious or spiritual relationship.
Incorporating Spirituality into Treatment Planning
An outgrowth of the focusing group came into being as we prepared for a presentation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. We decided to do an inter-shift meditation group from Monday to Friday for one half-hour on each unit. As chaplain, I am at the center only part time, so we enlisted support from our Occupational Therapy department to assist with the meditation group.
These professionals were provided with materials for focusing and were instructed in the procedure to be used during the meditation sessions. On each unit, the clients were encouraged to participate. Each client was given the freedom to attend or not. Many availed themselves of this opportunity for quiet reflection and meditation.
An Experimental Journey
The sessions consisted of a guided meditation that focused on one’s breathing and being led by the music to a calm place where participants were one with their “best selves,” Higher Power or God. As these sessions continued, clients became more adept at meditating and in their ability to speak of the calming effect these sessions had on them.
Some only listened to the music, others did visualize being in a calm place of oneness with self, Higher Power or God. Some were able to articulate their prayer during this meditation time. The mental health and skills of each came into play. All found this a relaxing experience and seemed to value it greatly.
In addition to reflective music, we tried to engage the senses of the clients as they meditated by providing some fragrance as well as a waterfall with sounds of water, nature sounds and light. This sensory experience was a touchstone for the clients should they become distracted or lose their focus during the meditation period. It assisted them in returning to the meditation period.
Commitment of Staff and Clients
The involvement of staff in these activities was most supportive. Staff members also were provided with an opportunity to participate in our 10-minute meditation time during community meetings.
The meditation sessions each week seemed to be attended by the same clients. Some clients who refused to attend other groups found these sessions most helpful and non-threatening. It had also been noted that some clients who attended the sessions approached the chaplain with faith questions never before raised with the chaplain.
Because “spirituality” and meditation are elusive, personal and individual, it was difficult to measure in ways other disciplines measure their effectiveness. We continually asked clients about the ways in which this group influenced their lives and behavior.
By assessing the spiritual growth of the clients, we attempted to provide a more holistic spiritual care program at the center. This in turn will enhance our physical and emotional efforts for our clients.
Fourteen years have passed since the introduction of spirituality to the center and I have come to believe that our clients and staff have grown in their understanding of God, Higher Power and of their “best self.”
Personally as I reflect on my ministry with the mentally ill, I know that the limitations of our clients have drawn them closer to our God. It is my hope that our spiritual care program provides the opportunity for our clients to deepen their relationship with their God, Higher Power or their “best self.”
Daily I marvel at their faith, trust and commitment to God or their Higher Power. As persons who suffer from major mental illnesses, I believe that their limitations provide them with the grace to turn to their God and utilize the spiritual power within themselves.
Kathleen Hagerty is interfaith chaplain at Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in Boston, MA.