IN our darkest hour we all need someone to talk to.

And it is often in these most worrying and devastating times hospital chaplain the Rev Mark Thompson is on hand to offer support.

For the past 23 years Mark has been one of three salaried chaplains working for the Colchester Hospital University Foundation Trust and supported by a network of volunteers.

Every day has been different and rewarding in its own way and each situation a privilege to be a part of, explains Mark, who is preparing to retire from his position at the end of the week.

He describes the work of the chaplaincy as being to offer spiritual care to people, whatever their beliefs.

“It is not specifically about religious care at all.

“What we offer is for everybody, you might not believe in anything but we are a friendly face when needed and I would say it is a privilege to be able to be beside people when they are going through some of the most difficult times of their lives.

“People often ask for prayer for reassurance when they are frightened and fearful”.

“And I think you have to be a good listener, not easily shocked or surprised and know when to say something and when not to.

“I think my background as a priest gives people more confidence to perhaps give a more confessional side.”

Mark was not always a priest but his original calling gives him another major insight into his work as a chaplain.

A trained psychiatric nurse, he worked at the Severalls Hospital for a number of years before going on to full-time ministry in the Church of England.

“I retained my interest in mental health and pastoral care and having worked in a number of parishes I was thinking about making a return.

“And I was working in Yorkshire when I saw an advert for the chaplaincy position back in Colchester and it was where I started and I wanted to move back to Colchester,” says Mark, who is married to Denise and has three grown-up children.

The move meant he was part of the team at a time the closure of Severalls was taking place - bringing him back to where it all started.

“It was with a mixture of sadness that I was here for that, but also it was uplifting because it meant attitudes and the way mental health was being approached was changing,” he says.

Certainly the way in which the issue of mental health is approached has changed in the past 20 years for the better says Mark.

“I think I have been lucky in that I could use my experiences.

“No day has ever really been the same in the chaplaincy, you might be giving the last rites, or talking to family members who are distressed about their loved ones.

“Or we might be talking to people who just need someone to listen and certainly over the years I have got to know people who have been treated for their mental health because it is not something that ever goes away.

“You might have an episode and then get better, but it never fully goes away,” explains Mark, who outside of work is a keen cyclist and swimmer.

The team, supported by 40 fully trained volunteer lay chaplains, are on call two or three times a week which could being called in at any time.

“I have to say it is not often in the middle of the night but you do have to be ready to quickly re-arrange what you are doing if it is needed.

“You are talking about some of the most important times in people’s lives, at the end of their lives but also when they are going through loss and real worry.

“I think over the years I have learned to be comfortable with silence.

“Some people just want to have someone there to talk to, to listen to and that is where the team of volunteers come in.

“They will go around the wards and just offer people the opportunity to talk to them,” says Mark.

As an experienced psychiatric nurse and trained counsellor, Mark has honed his skills in understanding people and not being easily offended.

“There are lots of times where people do not want to talk to you.

“They are often angry at what is happening to them or their loved one and that is totally understandable.

“We know when to back away or to take a cue. A newspaper being picked up is a very good sign they are perhaps not in a place where they want to talk and that is absolutely fine.”

And while there are times of darkness and pain in the working life of the chaplaincy, there are also bittersweet and uplifting times too.

Mark explains while he has had the extremely sad task of helping bereaved parents through the heartache of a stillborn baby, he has also gone on to baptise subsequent healthy siblings and special services to remember little ones who have been lost.

He has also overseen a number of marriage ceremonies for patients who are battling terminal illnesses.

“They are bittersweet of course but it is a privilege to be a part of them and help make something happen that is so very important.”

Up until recently Mark has also served for many years as a trustee of mid & north Essex Mind and plan to continue to help promote mental health awareness amongst faith communities with Essex Mind & Spirit.

He is also at present trustee of the counselling agency CC&PC in Colchester and explains the chaplaincy at the hospital trust also provides support for staff.

He adds : “Staff support is a high priority for the chaplaincy team with the chapel well used by staff of all faiths and also those with none, who find it a place of stillness and sanctuary in stressful times.”