Nursing on a Christian Psychiatric Unit

After finishing a 30-year career as a psychiatric nurse with the state of Maryland, I knew I was not finished working so I began reading the want ads.

One in particular caught my eye, probably because of its incongruent nature: “Psychiatric Nurses Wanted for a Christian Focused Psychiatric Unit.”

Personally, I’d never felt that Christianity and psychiatry were incompatible, but the two had not been considered bedfellows by many, in either the Christian or Psychiatric communities.

Indeed, in some instances the two had been downright hostile to one another and the differences were nonnegotiable. If Christ is the answer, asked some Christians, why is he not enough?

What about the power of prayer? We use it in dealing with physical problems, so why not the emotional as well?

The contrarian view held by secular psychiatrists and psychologists, is supported by what they consider solid evidence. If Christianity is the answer for the mentally ill, why are so many of my patients professing Christians?

In the Beginning

During the early days of my nursing career you would not find a Bible on a psychiatric ward out of concern that some of the religious fanatics might get “stirred up.”

During my first few years in psychiatric nursing, I struggled to maintain my Christian principles in some decidedly non-Christian environments. The concept of God was generally accepted but talking openly about Christianity, and especially Jesus Christ, was unofficially taboo.

But then things began to change. There was a need to be met.

My interview with the head nurse on the Christian psychiatric unit had gone well, and it was probably the quickest hire I’d ever experienced. The makeup of the staff would be about 50% Christian, she’d said. This would make for some interesting experiences during orientation week.

“Are you one of those ‘born again’ Christians?” asked one of my new co-workers who had a very direct manner. “Yes” I replied. She paused. “That’s funny, I don’t find you offensive.”

This was a good example of some interactions during orientation week. It was not hard to differentiate between who was Christian and who was not. The Christians smiled more and generally seemed more contented, while a decided lack of cursing also marked them as different.

But what would the patients be like?

From the Same Cloth 

Since the unit I was going to be working on was new and state-of-the-art, one of my first duties was to help with the transfer of patients from the old unit.

One day, as we were getting off the bus to enter a new hospital and psychiatric unit, a young male patient bolted, necessitating a chase down a crowded street by myself and a male aide. No different from the state hospital I thought to myself.

But then, as we secured the young man, something very different happened – he apologized. “I’m sorry. I’m a Christian and I know I shouldn’t do that, but sometimes I just lose it,” he said. I would have other incidents with this particular patient and he would always apologize.

And so I learned one thing very quickly in my new job: the mentally ill Christian and the mentally ill secular person have this in common. They are both unpredictable.

The Christian with a diagnosis of borderline personality experiences the same inner loneliness and can be just as self-destructive as the non-Christian. The believing anorexic must be observed just as closely to be sure she eats the food on her plate.

The Christian with substance abuse issues can be just as manipulative as his non-Christian counterpart. The young boy from a fine Christian home suffering the torture of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder experiences the same level of anxiety as the non-Christian.

Scripture & Verse

But still, the Christian unit was different; and these differences made my nursing experiences there the most rewarding of my career.

It was a pleasure to come to work at night and find the scripture verse of the day posted in the nurses station. Group meetings began with a prayer. Bible studies were held on a regular basis. Profanity was almost totally lacking.

Never was I attacked, physically or verbally by a patient. Even though they were suffering horrible illnesses, something marked them as children of God. Praying with a patient or studying scripture at 3 a.m. would’ve been unthinkable on any other unit.

The nurses I worked with were the best. Love and respect began with the head nurse and filtered down. Never before had I experienced such an atmosphere of congeniality. Even the non-Christians came to see that this was a special place. There was no competition between staff.

My entire nursing career totaled 46 years. Mostly they were good years, but I can’t help but think that if I could’ve worked every day of those years on a unit where the scripture verse of the day was posted in the nurse’s station, it would’ve been a lot more enjoyable.

Don Haines is a retired registered nurse from Woodbine, Md.

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