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‘Lean on Me:’ Singing Chaplain Ministers to Psychiatric Hospital Patients

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America is experiencing a historic mental health crisis. Some sufferers require hospitalization for their condition. 

One chaplain serving at a psychiatric facility in Columbus, Ohio, reaches these patients in a unique way through song. 

“We find strength, mentally, physically, spiritually, in all sorts of places.  Music is one of them,” said Rev. Chris Ciampa, the chaplain at Ohio State University’s Harding Hospital, a part of Wexner Medical Center

“What we get in the hospital are people whose mental illness has gotten to the point where they need to have that kind of really intense focus. And that’s hard,” Ciampa said. “I figured if you’re going to work that hard you deserve to have someone come by, no big sweat, we’re just going to sing and have some fun. You know, a little relief from the day.”

While Ciampa doesn’t rule out Christian hymns, he generally chooses pop songs about love and hope, like Thank You For Being a Friend, and the Elvis classic, I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You. With just his acoustic guitar, he invites patients to join him in a common room. He posts the lyrics on the walls so patients can sing along if they like. Ciampa’s personal favorite is Lean on Me.  

“It’s such a cool song because it doesn’t say ‘I’m wonderful, I’m perfect,’ or ‘I’m a nobody.’ It just says, ‘I’m here for you if you need me,'” Ciampa said.

Like traditional hospital chaplains, Ciampa talks and prays with patients. However, he says music is an element of his ministry that helps break down invisible barriers like nothing else can. He says music is particularly effective when dealing with hospitalized mental patients who often feel a heightened sense of isolation.  

“I think singing is a way of just putting people on an even basis and saying, ‘You know, it’s just us chickens here. Let’s just sing a song,'” he said. 

Ciampa said he now realizes God was preparing him for a music ministry. He didn’t always know that he wanted to be a chaplain. After earning a bachelor’s degree in music education, Ciampa taught music, but the work wasn’t fulfilling. He felt a calling to do something more. 

“I didn’t experience a voice or anything like that. But it was just like: ‘This isn’t worth it. I’ve got to do something that’s worth it,'” he said. “I come from a family of pastors. My dad, my grandfather, my father’s four brothers are all pastors. So, I really tried not to be one. But, ‘Oh, well,'” Ciampa said with a laugh.

He went on to earn a master of arts degree in alcoholism and drug addiction ministry and a master of divinity degree, both from the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. 

Since arriving at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center in 2010, he worked mostly with seriously ill or injured patients and their families in the Emergency Department and the Medical Intensive Care Unit. Yet, the shift to helping patients with mental health problems was attractive to him. 

“I enjoy focusing specifically on pastoral care and just caring for people where they are,” Ciampa said. “Just to be able to focus on taking care of people is where kind of where I seem to fit in best.”

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