Spiritual care: A critical component of whole-person health


In this article:

  • Spiritual Care Week is Oct. 22-28. This year’s theme is “Chaplaincy and Mental Health: It’s Healthy to Get Help.”

  • Richard Weyls, MDiv, STL, BCC, is the interim manager of spiritual care at Swedish. We spoke with him about this year’s theme and the intersection of spiritual care and mental health.

  • Weyls explained that Swedish is dedicated to providing the highest levels of spiritual and behavioral health care because of its commitment to providing whole-person care.

Each year at the end of October, we recognize Spiritual Care Week, which gives us the opportunity to highlight our spiritual providers at Swedish; this year’s theme is “Chaplaincy and Mental Health: It’s Healthy to Get Help.”

To learn more about this important work, why it’s vital throughout the year and how it informs the essential work of Swedish spiritual caregivers, we spoke with Richard Weyls, MDiv, STL, BCC, the interim manager of spiritual care at Swedish.

What drew you to a career as a spiritual care provider?

I’ve been doing this work for more than 30 years, and I think a lot of my attraction to the role of the human spirit in health care and healing had to do with my family experience growing up. I have a younger brother who was diagnosed with a very serious illness when he was 6 months old. The supportive care we received from the chaplains, social workers and nursing staff really helped my family cope with what was a very frightening and disruptive experience in our lives.

I was also always very interested in health care. I went to medical school for two years but left because I felt I was being called to something that, for me, would be even deeper. From there, I went to the seminary and served as a Roman Catholic priest for 15 years. That’s also the time I had my first hospital ministry experience through the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program. That introduced me to health care chaplaincy in the acute care environment, and I loved it.

Fifteen years ago, I resigned from the priesthood and became a professional, board-certified hospital chaplain. I completed a residency and all the additional training required to get a board certification as a chaplain. That’s the gold standard in our discipline.

Since then, I’ve trained people in clinical pastoral education and eventually ended up in acute care and palliative care — and was part of the first inpatient palliative care team at Swedish. Before my current role as interim manager of spiritual care for all five Swedish hospitals (overseeing 28 chaplains), I served as the manager of palliative care for the system. I’m also now a priest in the Episcopal Church.

What does this year’s “Chaplaincy and Mental Health” Spiritual Care Week theme mean to you?

Spiritual care is an essential part of whole-person care — the integration of the mind, body and spirit. When there’s an issue in one aspect of the lived experience of a person, it affects all aspects of their life. I think when you’re broaching the topic of mental health, you really have to consider it through the lens of the whole human experience, which includes that kind of mysterious piece that I would call spirit.

What I especially notice, particularly when I’m in the inpatient behavioral health unit, which is for people receiving acute psychiatric treatment, is that people want to talk about what’s making them not feel whole. They say, “I’m afraid, I’m anxious, I feel lost, I don’t know what’s next.” They want to know that their life has value even if they’re living with a life-limiting illness. They ask, “Can I still grow? Can I still contribute? Does my life have value?” That’s the real meaty stuff we get involved in with people. For some, that involves a sort of religious conversation, but that’s not everyone. Some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had have been with people who are deeply spiritual through their connection with nature. Just by exploring those connections, we can help them feel healthier and more whole.

How do you work with behavioral health providers to help people?

Part of our job is listening very deeply to the people who are seeking care from us. We listen very deeply and sometimes we make recommendations for them. We are pretty good at assessing where people are and what they’re asking for. We may make recommendations based on that assessment to the health care team, even to the doctor, if we think that a psychiatric consultation would be helpful. We collaborate with other members of the health care team and offer suggestions for someone’s whole-person care.

We also get referrals from behavioral health providers, especially in our hospitals where we have inpatient behavioral health units, such as addiction recovery. All the providers very willingly give us referrals. And we chart in the medical record, just like the behavioral health providers. They consult with us about a whole bunch of things. Often, it’s if someone is having some kind of religious or existential spiritual struggle. But it’s not always around religion and spirituality. It might just be someone needs a listening ear, and they really trust us to do that because we aren’t mental health providers.

We also support two outpatient programs. They’re for patients with acute psychiatric needs who don’t necessarily require inpatient medical stabilization. We’re very pleased and proud to be associated with those programs.

Why is Swedish dedicated to providing the highest levels of spiritual and behavioral health care, and to helping the community find what they need in both?

I worked for Swedish, which has a secular identity, before it was affiliated with Providence, a Catholic organization. Even though Swedish is secular, it values spiritual care as part of its care for the whole person, and that’s always been the case. Spiritual care has always had a seat at the table. We don’t have to fight to be included because we already are. People expect us to be around and care for patients. This organization really does believe in the importance of spiritual care as part of total-person care, which includes mental health, as well as physical health care. That’s why they devote resources toward it.

We also try to communicate that to the larger community in almost any way we can. We want to be present among underserved communities, and to bring spiritual care to people who aren’t getting it now. That’s why we’re piloting a TeleSpiritual Health program, so patients can receive ongoing spiritual care from a board-certified chaplain after they leave the hospital — whether they continue their care somewhere else, such as at a skilled nursing facility, or at home. But even beyond that, I’ve heard discussions about using AI and bots on the website so people can ask spiritual care questions on the website and get good information and then possibly connect with a chaplain to get the resources they need. I think we’re kind of cutting edge.

Why is Swedish’s focus on youth mental health and its partnership with Seattle Sounders FC so important?

I recently attended a training on trauma-informed spiritual care. During the training, we spent a lot of time talking about ACES, which are adverse childhood experiences. Most people think of trauma as witnessing a murder, but there are much more minor things that happen to children that really affect them and their health, the so-called social determinants of health. We can’t really do anything to prevent those adverse childhood experiences, but we can mitigate their effects in adulthood. And the way we do that is by providing protective strategies, which can reduce the effects of the experiences. One of the major protective strategies we can employ in these children’s lives is having adults, caregivers and other people show up as role models. That can reduce their likelihood of struggling with addiction, employment issues or depression, for example, later in life.

As a health care system that is dedicated to being a caring community and caring for our community, anything we can do to help children, as early in their lives as possible, can greatly reduce their chances of having serious difficulties later on. When we make their lives better, we help them, too, live into wholeness.

Learn more and find a provider

At Swedish, we recognize that meeting our patients’ spiritual and religious needs is an important part of caring for the whole person. If you or a loved one needs spiritual care services, please call 206-386-6000 and ask to be connected with a chaplain.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.

Related resources

Epidemic of loneliness and isolation

Seattle Sounders FC star visits Swedish First Hill

Youth mental health is focus of Providence and Sounders FC partnership

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Swedish Behavioral Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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