Making Connections: Spirituality, Mental Health, and COVID-19

May 14, 2020

Every night, before she goes to sleep, McLean Hospital’s chaplain, Rev. Angelika A. Zollfrank, MDiv, BCC, ACPE certified educator, prays for her colleagues, for her friends, and patients at the hospital.

“In my mind’s eye, I walk the campus and just pray,” she said. “I pray for people in Facilities, people on the kitchen staff, psychiatrists, nurses, mental health workers at the programs. It helps me turn over the burden of the day.”

With the COVID-19 crisis, turning over the burden of the day has never been more important. And for Zollfrank, the key to addressing the stress and uncertainty imposed by the pandemic is to make connections. “Ministry or spiritual care is about creating connections where there aren’t any,” she said. “In my role as chaplain, I have a range of conversations. It’s important to give people a chance to talk about what it’s like. What are the burdens and losses? What are the joys and blessings?”

Supporting the McLean Community

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, Zollfrank has been asked to have many conversations with McLean staff and patients. For example, she said that two programs have asked her to arrange in-person and Zoom meetings with mental health workers on the front lines to give them a chance to talk about their experiences with a clergyperson. Other conversations are more casual but no less important.

Patients at McLean have participated in an artwork project to help Boston Hope

“The other day, I asked a staff member, ‘How are you doing?’” Zollfrank recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t complain,’ and I said, ‘but you could with me!’”

According to David H. Rosmarin, PhD, ABPP, these conversations are having a significant impact on McLean staff and patients. “Angelika has played a critical role in providing spiritual care,” said Rosmarin, director of McLean’s Spirituality and Mental Health Program. “She’s been a wonderful resource for patients and staff who wish to connect with a chaplain. She’s putting in extra hours checking in with people. There’s no end to the support she’s providing.”

Rosmarin believes spiritual support is essential at places like McLean because more and more people are asking for it. “When these crises hit, people often ask themselves questions like: Is there something out there? Am I alone in the world? If I were to die, would I have fulfilled my purpose in life?” he stated.

Rosmarin reported that Zollfrank has addressed these questions in many faith-specific ways in recent weeks. For example, she got protein bars from Food and Nutrition Services to a Muslim patient who needed to feel the comfort of being a part of the worldwide Muslim community through fasting during Ramadan. She delivered Shabbat boxes to patients who are isolated from their families. She celebrated the Eucharist with an Episcopal patient who has not been able to participate in this sacrament since early March.

Supporting Boston Hope

Zollfrank’s efforts, Rosmarin believes, demonstrate McLean’s commitment to serving the spiritual needs of its patients and staff. “The fact that chaplaincy is valued and understood by our hospital administration to be an important resource for staff and patients has given Angelika the freedom to do all sorts of programs,” Rosmarin said.

Among those programs is a partnership between McLean and Boston Hope, a 1,000-bed medical center operating at the Boston Convention Center for those recovering from the coronavirus. “We received a request from Boston Hope about making the patient cubicles look less bare, less sparse,” Zollfrank reported. “So, we got in touch with our art therapists and asked them to work with patients to make artwork.”

Dana Roth, an expressive therapist in the Community Reintegration Unit, said that “programs at McLean run spirituality groups on an ongoing basis, and when this project was proposed to the patients, they expressed their eagerness to take part.” Roth said that McLean patients soon got busy creating personalized greeting cards, paintings, and other work to send to Boston Hope. The effort was led by Roth and the hospital’s other group coordinators and expressive therapists, including Rhiannon M. Espinoza (Dissociative Disorders and Trauma Inpatient Program), Alison M. Matthews (Klarman Eating Disorders Center), Malia Chan (Klarman Eating Disorders Center), Caroline Strimaitis (Short Term Unit), Sarah Emily Kostecki (Short Term Unit), and Nicole Anderson (Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder Inpatient Program).

Zollfrank said the project “was a beautiful way to make a connection, and it gave our patients a sense that they are making a contribution during the crisis.” Roth agreed, stating that “even the smallest of good deeds can ignite change and positively impact others with a renewed sense of hope.”

The Boston Hope project underscored the importance of spirituality and making connections in stressful, uncertain times. “Think about being a patient at the convention center, where there are 30-foot high ceilings, and you’re in a cubicle all by yourself,” Zollfrank said. “You feel pretty disconnected, but to be connected to someone who is a patient in a distant hospital and struggling in a different way—that could be very powerful.”

Zollfrank, Rosmarin, and Roth believe the power of spirituality in the health care world will continue—and possibly grow stronger—as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. “I see that there’s a lot of demand for spirituality,” Rosmarin said. “A recent study out of Copenhagen found that Google searches for the word ‘prayer’ have drastically increased with COVID-19. They have amplified in lockstep with the number of registered cases by country. There’s clearly a need for this kind of support.”

As for Zollfrank, the work of offering spiritual support will go on. “For me, it’s always about trying to make connections and touch people’s lives even if it’s only for a moment,” she said. “Whether it is during a crisis like this or not, we need people to know that they are not alone. That’s what spirituality and religion are all about.”

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