Heroes of the year - mental health chaplains

Reading time: 9 min

Every day over the festive period, UniteLIVE will highlight a different ‘hero of the year’. Today we honour mental health chaplains, who have played a pivotal role in comforting patients and health care staff especially during the pandemic.

Back in May, we spoke to mental health chaplain Graham Peacock, who told UniteLIVE what it was like working on the frontline of the virus. Find out more in our feature below.


When UNITElive speaks to people on the phone these days, they’re often at home, and you can hear the familiar hubbub of domestic life – the children calling out for attention, the frenzied yapping of a pet dog, the hiss of a kettle.

But this week when we catch up with mental health chaplain and Unite member Rev Graham Peacock, the usual background sounds are replaced by the song of birds, blissfully unaware of how the world has dramatically changed around them.

“I’m in a field full of cows and it’s just gorgeous,” he says. “Earlier I was in a field in the middle of the moors this morning on the edge of North Yorkshire. And then I was sat in a garden in Wensleydale. It’s really paradise – I get to drive through areas of outstanding natural beauty and its work. It’s my job to do that. It’s lovely.”

Graham works for a trust in Yorkshire and normally, he does his rounds in mental health wards and care homes, and does a lot of work in the community as well. Since the lockdown was eased earlier this month, he’s now permitted to meet people individually outdoors two meters apart. Just as before the pandemic, he’ll drive in some cases more than 50 miles in all sorts of weather conditions to give people comfort and counsel.

“We’re just trying to find ways to connect with people,” he tells UNITElive. “Some people with mental health conditions struggle with phones as it is but in areas like this the software I use just doesn’t always work because you can’t get a signal.”

He recounts a meeting he had earlier this week someone he’d supported before – just never in their own territory.

‘I met them in their field’

“I met them in their field. They would always refer to their field as the one place that they feel very connected to the world. It never actually twigged for me but now that I actually saw them in this space that they so often spoke about, I could see them where they were happy. When you go and see people in their territory, it can be quite profound.”

While the outdoor part of his working environment may be idyllic, Graham and other mental health chaplains are now facing some of the most testing times of their careers.

“Two of the wards that we normally go into were exposed to the virus,” he said. “Over a quarter of the people in those wards died.

“Unlike say palliative or acute chaplains, we don’t often deal with people who are dying. We only support people with mental health conditions, and while we expect some people to die occasionally in mental health wards, we’ve had to evolve fast during this pandemic to deal with many people who are dying. Now, people on mental health wards have had to deal with deaths, where relatives can’t come into the ward. The shock from that could well be immense.”

Graham and his colleagues mostly now work from home, using phones and other forms of technology to connect with people. And while he says he generally handles stress well, he’s had to adapt, like so many of us, to the challenges of home working.

“You’ve got a mission to support people – but eight hours on the phone to people is quite hard. “There was a period of about three weeks where I kind of crashed. I took a day off, went for an awful long walk, and I thought I’ve got to work from home differently.

“We’re in a situation where you don’t have your normal breaks in your workplace. So if you’re on your computer for an hour, perhaps you should look at it for 50 minutes. Then walk around. Make sure you stay hydrated and take exercise. It’s also vital to speak to your manager if you need to work flexibly to support the service and to support yourselves and your family. Thankfully the Trust I work for have been very supportive to those having to work from home.”

Unite Chaplains ‘enormously helpful’

For Graham, being part of Unite, which embraces the College of Healthcare Chaplains (CHCC), has been enormously helpful, especially in these unprecedented times.

“We’ve been meeting virtually more frequently, just to share the developing position in the country and to talk about what’s working and what isn’t; about how different trusts are being supportive of the chaplaincy service and how others are not supporting us and taking arbitrary decisions to exclude chaplains.

“We’ve even had leaders in the union beyond our immediate CHCC group, like [Unite regional officer] Steve Syson and [Unite lead professional officer] Jane Beach sit in in our virtual sessions. There’s something about that in a psychological sense that you truly feel that the union is with you. That’s very powerful. I really feel being part of Unite means that we’re all in this together.”

Graham said while the current crisis is devastating, he fears more still for the future; he worries that the aftershocks for many people, especially health and care workers, will linger for years to come.

‘Moral injury’

“There’s a concept called moral injury, where for example, if you’re a clinician and you’re repeatedly asked to do things you normally wouldn’t do, it can affect you over time.”

“So normally in a mental health ward you might say to a patient, ‘yes you can have an hour outside – go out for an hour and come back.’ But for good reasons, they now have to restrict that. They’ll have to tell patients ‘you might feel like you’re about to explode but I can’t let you out’ and then work on other strategies to support them. And they’re going to have to do that for a long period of time. It builds up a stress level.

“We recognise that after this pandemic ends, it’s something that will come out – in days, weeks, months, or even years – in the form of trauma. They may suddenly become short-tempered, or they might have to take sick leave.”

For Graham, he believes the hero narrative in the NHS can in fact be profoundly damaging for health and other essential workers’ mental health.

“Heroes aren’t allowed to be scared or frightened – but we’ve got lots of people working in the mental health wards who are frightened. But because of this hero narrative, they feel they can’t admit it. It’s not helping people.”

And it’s not just health workers who are experiencing a profound mental shift during this pandemic – every single one of us has been affected in a big way.

“Right now people are really questioning what life is all about,” Graham explained. “And not just in the sense that death may be close but also this sense of dislocation; that everything is closed off to us. My partner may have lost their job, all the protective factors I had before — I could go to work, I could come back home, I could go to church, I could go to the pub, or the gym, or the coast — they’re all gone.”

It’s with these sorts of big philosophical dilemmas, as well as the smaller trials and tribulations of life, that chaplains can help. And that’s why Graham believes the services he and his colleagues provide are absolutely vital at this time.

“My job isn’t about directly helping people; it’s about giving people the space to be themselves, to make their own connections. Sometimes people just need someone to sit with them, to say, ‘I’m having a bad day. That life is not great right now. I can still function – I don’t want to be pathologised or go into a formal counselling situation but I just want someone to hear me’.”

And while we may not all have the opportunity to speak to a chaplain, he has a message of hope for all us during this pandemic.

“It’s a cliché but it’s so true – it’s okay not to be okay,” he said. “Talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be a professional. Even if you might feel like that, you’re never alone – don’t ever give up.”

By Hajera Blagg @hajeranblagg

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