Chaplains find State Hospital work rewardingServing at the North Dakota State Hospital isn’t always easy, but the job is rewarding, fun and can make a real difference in people’s lives, three chaplains who serve there say.
By: Kari Lucin, The Jamestown Sun
Serving at the North Dakota State Hospital isn’t always easy, but the job is rewarding, fun and can make a real difference in people’s lives, three chaplains who serve there say.
“Well, it’s fun to see people open to some good news,” said Kathleen Heller, one of three chaplains at the State Hospital. “It takes a lot of energy to hear people’s pain, and then to walk through it with them.”
“You make a difference in people’s lives,” said the Rev. Joseph Barrett, a Catholic priest who spends 20 hours a week at the State Hospital as chaplain.
Generally, the chaplains work with two groups of patients — those with psychiatric problems, and those with behavioral problems, a group which includes both people struggling with addiction and people who are sex offenders.
Each group presents its own challenges and opportunities.
“I find it actually fun,” said Herb Flitton, chaplain. “There’s so many different situations to get into, and sometimes, because of some of the diseases you get into … it’s just funny.”
Some of the psychiatric patients, for example, are uninhibited about what they say, leading to comments during the worship service such as “Is church done yet?” or “Well, shut up already!”
Then there are the patients struggling with schizophrenia, who point out that people believe the Bible when it says Ezekiel saw angels, but not when the patients see angels.
“You have to ask yourself what the angel is telling you,” Flitton tells them.
Some patients believe they’re Jesus Christ or God, Heller said.
Most of them, once their medication is working, know they hear voices or see things that aren’t real, and in those cases Flitton tries to offer them the encouragement they need to know what is and isn’t real.
“You can really enjoy it, and grow so attached to some of the people that others would be terrified to spend time with because they wouldn’t know what to do or say,” Flitton said.
Sometimes unusual problems crop up. Heller once had a patient who was very concerned about her last name having the word “hell” in it. She suggested he just call her “Kathleen,” and that solved the problem.
Occasionally, a patient in the grip of an illness will attack a chaplain, but it’s a very unusual occurrence.
Heller was once slapped by a woman who has apologized for it profusely and repeatedly since. Barrett got beaned with a plateful of lasagna once.
“Since I’ve been chaplain, only once has someone come at me. They tend to hold a respect,” Flitton said. “They know (chaplains) care about them … and that matters a lot to a patient.”
In fact, Heller said, the patients would probably try to step in and protect her if anyone tried to hurt her.
The patients at the hospital as sex offenders have a different set of needs and problems.
“It’s really diverse. You have some that have come a long way and are cycling out into the community. Some of them are really pleasant to work with, some have made progress,” Flitton said.
Some of them, though, are unpleasant to work with and don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong, Flitton added. Some have become so wrapped-up in their own fantasies that they can become another kind of delusion.
If one of the three chaplains has personal concerns about working with a particular patient, he or she can simply refer the person to another chaplain.
“They’re people too,” Barrett said, pointing out that some of the sex offenders are very sorry, want help and don’t want to re-offend.
The people struggling with addictions, too, have a different set of issues and concerns.
“They deal with drug addiction, they get sober and most of them that are sober are very nice people,” Barrett pointed out. “I’ve seen success stories.”
When he was younger, Barrett said he, too, had substance abuse problems, giving him insight into the patients dealing with that.
One of the things all the patients can benefit from is not focusing on themselves too much, Flitton said. People who do that have a harder time with their problems no matter what they are.
Flitton described patient problems as ranging from the seemingly-trivial, such as how to find another quarter in order to buy a can of pop, to the very serious concern that everyone in the family has rejected the patient, who now has no place to live.
“They’re people. They’re human beings. They have real souls, real lives, real feelings and you can relate to them,” Barrett said.
Both the psychiatric patients and the behavioral health patients have diverse faith backgrounds.
Overall, about 60 to 70 percent of the patients would say they’re Christian, Flitton said.
Many of the rest practice Native American faiths, so the State Hospital has weekly smudging ceremonies and every other month, there’s a sweat lodge, presided over by a Native American elder.
Every spring, Flitton has to find matzo for the Jewish patients celebrating Passover, and he also helps set up diets for Muslim patients fasting for Ramadan.
The chaplains are diverse, too. Barrett is a Catholic priest. Heller was raised Baptist, and is licensed through the Evangelical Free Church of America. Flitton was raised Presbyterian and later served in an Evangelical Free Church.
They enjoy working together, and praised the other hospital staff too.
“Our responsibility as chaplains is to provide for their spirituality,” Flitton said. “Our job is not to convert them or regulate them, but provide for them.”
There are other services the chaplains provide, too. They lead a study focusing on “The Purpose-Driven Life,” for example, and Heller coordinates volunteers from the community for Bible studies and ministries, financial gifts and Christmas presents.
“We get, for the most part, positive support from churches within the community,” Heller said.
Sometimes she brings patients to local churches, especially for Lenten services or special services, which give people another opportunity to reintegrate into society.
The chaplains also work with patients’ families, if requested, or staff and their families, if requested.
And when patients at the State Hospital die, the chaplains do memorial services for them.
Barrett brings his guitar and gives lessons to some patients. Patients also love seeing him drive his motorcycle to work.
Then there are the worship services. Sometimes there are eight of them a week, because there are four secured units that don’t mix with other units. Some services are done at a very simple level and others are more complex, Flitton said.
Heller has a grief counseling group and also helps people working through a 12-step addiction program on their fourth and fifth steps — taking a moral inventory and then admitting the exact nature of the person’s wrongs to God and another person.
“To help them connect with God … is a good thing,” Barrett said. “That’s even if they keep struggling with mental illness, or keep struggling with bad behavior.”
Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at 701-952-8453 or by email at