“People make a few assumptions about me,” laughs Chaplain Richard Allen, who has taken up a role overseeing the spiritual needs of patients and health staff across Hemel Hempstead.
Richard has been appointed as Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust new head of spiritual and pastoral care.
Although it is one of the NHS’s less visible jobs, Richard heads a team of chaplains and volunteers helping carers, service users and staff through periods of personal and professional crisis in locations including mental health facilities in Hemel Hempstead, such at the Logandene Centre in Bennetts End Close.
He said: “There is a lingering belief that spiritual care is solely expressed in religious terms and people expect me to turn up with a clerical collar and bible preaching the word of God. I am a person of faith but it has its time and place and the service is careful to separate religion from broader spiritual care unless someone specifically requests a faith visit.”
Richard believes that the greatest skill his team bring to the table is their ability to listen and empower people to resolve issues themselves.
“People invariably ask questions they are asking themselves and we help guide them round to addressing whatever is bothering them.”
Richard and his team aim to visit each of the Trust’s inpatient facilities once a week. And this is no small task, as the Trust operates from numerous locations across Hertfordshire plus parts of Essex and Norfolk.
They are there to support staff as much as service users, and can just as easily have a confidential chat with an overworked manager as an exhausted carer or service user on a ward. Richard cites a nurse struggling with the repercussions of being the last person to see a patient before committing suicide and respected but overworked manager questioning her own abilities as typical encounters in his previous chaplaincy role in London.
He added: “People came and chatted to me for all sorts of personal and work related problems so my advice to anyone struggling is not to be shy in coming forward.
“It’s a confidential service that everyone has a right to access and I would like to reassure people the service has no religious agenda unless people specifically request that.
“Sometimes it’s enough to just sit with people and share their space. Most of us find it helpful to be with someone when we’re struggling, rather than carrying our burdens alone.”
The potential clash between science and spirituality is something Richard happily accepts, citing a healthy working relationship with clinicians.
He said: “Medication is important in helping stabilise many service users’ condition but it has its time and place as does self-reflection and conversation which empower people. I think it’s important to foster independence because we are all more capable than we often think we are. It is the whole person that matters at the end of the day, not just their symptoms. The trust’s recovery orientated approach to care reflects that ethos.
“It’s a never less than interesting job and I’m constantly surprised by people. It’s a deeply humbling experience and a privilege to share part of someone’s journey.”