Friday, December 07, 2007

Spiritual Care in Disasters: Recent Resources

I want to commend to your attention the September edition of the Southern Medical Journal. That edition has series of articles on emotional and spiritual needs of victims of disasters. (Your local reference librarian can help you. If you have access to a hospital or academic library, so much the better.)

The articles are a part of the Southern Medical Journal’s Spirituality/Medicine Interface Project. They begin with an introduction to the articles by Dr. Harold Koenig. He notes that, “As used here, spirituality involves religious beliefs, practices, and traditions, but also more broadly includes a search for the sacred, ultimate truth, or ultimate reality.” He clarifies that, while a traumatic event for an individual is a "disaster," these articles focus on community-wide catastrophes.

The purpose of these articles is to prepare physicians to address the unique emotional, social, and spiritual needs of survivors and of their families, of rescue workers, and of the treating physicians themselves. Besides generally preparing physicians to meet the medical and psychological needs of survivors, this issue will help to increase awareness of the spiritual needs of these potential patients, to learn how to sensitively identify those needs, and to determine when and whom to refer. The role that religion and spirituality play in helping survivors cope with the trauma of disasters is often quite significant. The ultimate result, we hope, will be a nation that is more resilient during times of catastrophe.

The articles are written for physicians, but are brief and very readable. Topics include things learned from Katrina at home and tsunamis abroad; spiritual needs of physicians in disasters; Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist responses in disasters; and the work in disasters of chaplains and congregational clergy.

I took the time to review “Spiritual Needs of Physicians During and Following a Catastrophe,” by Walter L. Larimore, MD, Mitchell W. Duininck, MD, and Col. Gary B. Morsch, MD, MPH. The authors describe common spiritual reactions to catastrophe, and emphasizes that physicians providing care in such situations are as vulnerable to them as are those they serve. They note that, “There has been very little written about the spiritual needs of physicians in general, and nothing dealing with the needs that arise when a physician has to deal with a catastrophic situation.” They discuss resources for physicians for spiritual care. They emphasize self care, and suggest several means. Finally, they call for further research on the spiritual needs of physicians, both in catastrophe and in normal circumstances.

In a way, it might seem odd for a chaplain to highlight this and other articles by physicians on spiritual needs and spiritual care. Again, not all the articles in this collection are written by physicians. However, physicians are the intended audience for the collection, and it’s all too true that if you want the attention of physicians, you need to involve physicians in the presentation. In any case, each article will stand on its own.

We are more aware of, and more focused on, catastrophic events than ever before. Whether natural or human-caused, we are more alert to possible needs than ever before. I wouldn’t say we’re really prepared, but we’re putting more time and effort into preparation all the time. These articles address another area in which to be prepared, an area that I think many professionals tend to ignore, either trusting the religious establishment to meet all needs (whether involving them in preparation or not), or feeling them at best beyond their competence, and at worst irrelevant. These articles will be especially helpful as resources for professionals, or perhaps simply to raise consciousness. In either case, they are worth our time and attention.

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